How many of us local folks (those who grew up here in Lexington) have had the impression that the tobacco industry and the thoroughbred horse industry were the two mainstays of Lexington's economy?
Since I was a small lad, the annual Blue Grass Review, a section of a January Herald – Leader Sunday edition, made grand statements and projections about all of the recent sales or the upcoming season for both industries. These were can't miss fields to be in.
Therefore, I was quite surprised to see this clipping from the June 30, 1938 Lexington paper:
In 1888, the largest crop grown in this county was hemp.Twenty-four percent of the world's output was produced here.Now we grow only about forty acres of hemp. Formerly the hemp house was as much a part of the farm equipment as the dairy or the stable. Now, the hemp house has given away to the larger tobacco barn and the horse barns.
In 40 years and two significant wars, Fayette County would abdicate its place as a world leader of beneficial raw goods and replace it with products associated with vice and addiction. Yes, I do know that local farmers have been raising horses and racing horses since before the Civil War but horses were not the only line of work. The modern thoroughbred operation of today began with the introduction of corporate style funding (syndicates and the like).
Hemp, basically a weed, is about as easy to grow as hay or sod and without the extensive level land requirement. The hard part is in the harvesting and processing of the fibers. Did it make a lot of sense to switch to tobacco, a much more labor intensive production process and susceptible to more blights or diseases?
The decline in production may have its roots in the The Marihuana Tax Act Of 1937, which did not directly outlaw the growing of hemp but put a tax on every entity who dealt with the raw material. Although the tax was just $1 a year in most cases, the penalties of not registering and paying were substantial.
Given the quote from the newspaper account, the tax was be placed on a sizable number of Fayette County farmers during a time when they were trying to climb out of the Great Depression. Not a good economic move there Congress.
There may be some defense for Congress since it was thought, at the time, that hemp fibers could replace wood chip fibers in paper production. Such a move could have threatened the powerful William Randolph Hearst and his vast timber holdings from which he got his newsprint.
Further complicating the economic landscape was the inclusion of the Cannabis family of plants in the 1925 revision of the International Opium Convention as a drug. The Boggs Act of 1952 is the first time in federal drug legislation that marihuana and narcotic drugs were lumped together, but the damage had already been done. In 1970 any cultivation of Cannabis plants what-so-ever was banned in the U.S.
More recently, at least since the mid-1990s, automobile parts manufacturers in Europe have been developing a process to use bio-mass fibers as a raw material. These fibers have included soy, switchgrass and hemp. The technology has been around since the late '30s so it is nothing new.
In 1941, Henry Ford made an experimental car body out of organic fibers that included hemp. As a demonstration, it was struck with an ax handle without damage to anything but the ax handle – it broke. Sadly, production costs proved to be too high, raw materials in short supply and World War II intervened, or we may have had many more lighter weight, auto-bodies when the “muscle car” engines developed. Imagine the Corvette with a bio-fiber shell rather than fiberglass or the polycarbonate shell of the old Saturn line which tended to shatter in colder climes.
Hemp is legally grown by 29 countries around the world at present and most will export many products made from that hemp. China, Russia and Korea produce a lion's share of those exports yet each year the U.S. government identifies those countries that it considers to be drug-exporting nations and they are not on the list. We Americans can legally import hemp products from as close as Canada but we cannot join the global market place or become hemp independent or export our own.
A number of our state's leaders wish to change the status quo and position Kentucky to proudly return to leading the world in hemp production, employing many farmers in the process. This week the The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce joined Agriculture Commissioner James Comer in supporting legislation allowing hemp production. Federal law still stands in the way, yet fully half of the our state's Congressional delegation have stated support of efforts to legalize growing hemp.
Not all farmers can get in the horse business and the tobacco business has just about dried up. Our produce farmers and remaining dairy/cattle farmers are scrapping for what tillable land there is left. Hemp can be grown on more marginal land and we still have some of that, especially in the more eastern region where they need the help.
Hemp legislation can be done in a reasonable and safe manner if we try. Let us all try to be proud Kentuckians, employed proud Kentuckians.