Hemp comes to Hillbilly Daze
Millville native Jane Marie Watts had one of the more unusual booths at Saturday's 36th annual Hillbilly Daze. On her table in front of the Millville Community Center were products made from the plants she grows on a half-acre of land of land near Millville. There were packets of hemp cord, clothing made from hemp, and a laptop computer showing video and pictures of their spring planting. Watts didn't have to worry about leaving Hillbilly Daze in handcuffs, though: She has permission from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) to grow the plant, which was once a mainstay of the Kentucky economy. "I'm just experimenting (in) how smaller farmers can participate in the growing of hemp," Watts said. This year, 323 applications to participate in the industrial hemp pilot project were submitted and 181 were approved, according to Doris Hamilton, the KDA's industrial hemp program manager. Participants in 60 counties stated intentions to plant more than 4,600 acres, and confirmed planting nearly 2,500 acres, Hamilton said. In 2013, the Kentucky General Assembly drafted a law that established a regulatory framework for industrial hemp production. The 2014 federal farm bill allowed industrial hemp pilot programs in states where hemp production is legal. That year, the first year of industrial hemp pilot projects in Kentucky, projects totaled just over 30 acres. "What I had planned to do with it was, I have a small oil press. I was hoping to press oil or find some value-added product that I could do at a farmers' market or on a smaller scale. I grew mine for seed - it's a grain variety," Watts said. Watts said she became interested in the possibilities of hemp during the debate over the controversial and since-cancelled Bluegrass Pipeline project. "We learned that industrial hemp has all the same uses as the natural gas liquids that they were trying to pipe through here, so this is what I would prefer to see on our land," Watts said. "It yields plastics, fuels, food, cosmetics." Jessica Knight, a friend of Watts's and one of the organizers of Hillbilly Daze, grows hundreds of acres of corn and soybeans at her family's Millville farm. One day, with permission from the state, the Knights may add hemp to the list. "This would be a big help to the community, to have another crash crop when they approve it for Kentucky - to have hemp on a large scale," Knight said. The pilot projects will help determine the profitability of industrial hemp. "I'm trying to include the smaller farmers - like a market garden, value-added product. Chocolates, maybe body care products, things like that.
But on a larger scale, it's still in development. That market for industrial hemp products has grown exponentially over the last few years, domestically. Right now it's all imported, so we're trying to create a local source of that and the infrastructure is really what's missing," Watts said. "I guess the profitability of it remains to be seen ." Critics of Kentucky's industrial hemp program say allowing people to grow the plant, which is a close cousin of the sort of marijuana people smoke, is a mistake. Watts thinks that argument's for the birds, so to speak. In fact, birds are big fans of her first hemp crop. "I know I lost a lot to the birds. The birds love it - gold finches, doves," Watts said.