Hemp, subject of much speculation in Kentucky and nationally, got only a passing mention in a five-year strategic plan for agriculture that was announced Tuesday. But it probably will get much more attention next week in the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee.
Chairman Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, said after a news conference that he is "deeply interested" in hemp but has questions about the cost of regulation, the specifics of production and the market potential for a crop that isn't legal in the United States.
McKee said Senate Bill 50, which seeks to license Kentucky farmers to grow industrial hemp, probably will be adjusted to include "an educational component" to gather that information.
Canada, which grew 50,000 acres of hemp last year, might be able to provide answers as to which varieties are grown for fiber versus seed and how they are harvested.
McKee said he doesn't anticipate delaying the bill for further study.
"I want the bill to move forward, just not as is. With that educational component," McKee said.
He said that House agriculture committee members see themselves as steering agriculture policy for the state, so they need facts, rather than opinion, to go on.
"We don't want to close the door on any viable agricultural commodity that might be out there for Kentucky," McKee said. "So we're going to look at everything."
McKee said he thinks hemp probably will be legalized on a federal level "if we see a growth in the demand."
Last week, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, signed on, with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, to sponsor federal legislation to distinguish hemp from marijuana and allow it to be grown again.
McConnell's participation is a significant development, McKee said.
State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said that hemp was mentioned in a sidebar of the Kentucky Agricultural Council's five-year plan as a way to promote "continued diversification of Kentucky's farm economy."
Comer said he plans to meet with McKee this week to discuss the chairman's concerns ahead of the hearing Feb. 27, when the committee probably will take up Senate Bill 50, which passed the Senate last week.
He said he might not oppose a potential committee substitute, depending on what is in it, Comer said.
"I would like to see what the committee sub is. Maybe it's something we can live with," Comer said. "We'll compromise as much as we can, but one part of a compromise is not delaying this another year. Because this will be a legal crop next year somewhere in the United States, in my opinion. Will it be in Kentucky? That's what we'll see with what the House does with this bill."
Comer said he thinks Senate Bill 50 has the votes to get out of the House agriculture committee and to pass the full House.
Much of the strategic plan unveiled Tuesday focused on continuing to foster diversification in agriculture, which Gov. Steve Beshear said he endorses.
Asked whether hemp is an example of that, Beshear said: "Hemp is certainly a possible example of diversification. We've got two issues we've got to address there. One is a market issue: Is there a market for it? And I think there are some studies going right now on that might help us in that direction. And then there are law enforcement concerns. And we need to solve both of those issues before we move ahead."
Beshear said he hoped that hemp proponents and law enforcement can come up with ways to address concerns about marijuana, because "in theory, we all support new products for Kentucky's farmers."
The five-year strategic plan, compiled by the Kentucky Agricultural Council over the past year, focuses not on specific commodities but on priorities for the state. Much of the emphasis is on increased funding from the General Fund, rather than the current reliance on tobacco settlement money, for efforts such as Kentucky Proud marketing and construction of the Breathitt Veterinary Center at Murray State University.
Despite strong legislative support for agriculture, a general fund allocation could be a tough sell to lawmakers trying to find ways to come up with millions for pension reform.
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