Hemp is Kentucky’s oldest crop.

In fact, hemp cultivation transcends the age of Kentucky itself. You’d have to go all the way back to the year 1775 to really get to the bottom of things; that’s when the soon-to-be-State’s first hemp crop was planted.

Indeed, Kentucky’s land has been prized for its farmability since the dawn of America. The first plant to be farmed? Hemp, of course, which was also a favorite cultivar of George Washington and other founding fathers. The area’s rich soil and pleasant weather inspired pioneer John Filson to mention hemp in his 1784 novelKentucky and the Adventures of Col. Daniel Boone”.

Hemp from Overseas Finds A Home

Hemp isn’t actually native to Kentucky; its seed had to be brought from European countries or even from Asia. Yet the plant flourished as soon as it arrived. The first crop of hemp was planted in Danvers — and it was a tremendous success.

Once the plant has some time to get established, local industry blossomed. Soon enough Kentucky was exporting, not importing, hemp and its derivatives to other parts of the Country. The bluegrass region was eventually identified as prime territory for hemp, the best of the best when it came to growing conditions.

Production grew in tandem with Kentucky society through the turn of the 19th century. Thanks to hemp the State’s early settlements evolved into genuinely bustling communities, replete with estates, large homes, and primitive factories.

Before too long early farmers found themselves with a surplus of hemp…so they had to get creative! Hemp-derived rope soon became a thriving industry of its own. Thriving enough for Kentucky senator Henry Clay to champion the cause, at least.

In an 1810 speech Clay pushed the US Navy to use hemp riggings on their ships, a debatable topic that made national news. In retrospect, the senator’s passion for hemp (and its business potential!) can be credited with shaping some of America’s earliest trade and tariff policies.

Industrial Hemp, Version 1.0

Fast forward to 1878, when the State’s first industrial-scale hemp processing center was launched by the Kentucky River Mills Company. This company was ingenious enough to harness waterpower in the production of hemp-derived products like fibrous twine.

According to the Frank Magazine, the scale of this company was unlike anything that had come before it. “[By] the 1880s, more than 100 workers softened the hemp, broke the stalks, carded and straightened the fibers, and then spun them into twine for binding grain.”

Soon enough the Kentucky River Mill Co. expanded enough to develop symbiotic relationships with the area’s hemp farmers, who were apparently good at growing a lot of hemp. Another excerpt from Frank Magazine:

“In September 1899, for example, the mills purchased more than 100,000-pounds from Woodford County farmers. Four months later, it bought 130,000 pounds from one Jessamine County grower.”

The hemp mill chugged along even as decades went by. in 1903 the Kentucky Department of Agriculture described it as “old-fashioned” — yet still “highly prosperous”.

Sources from the same time period ascribe monumental three-quarters of the entire U.S.’s hemp fiber generation to Kentucky. Production finally maxed out in 1917, when 18,000 acres of hemp were grown (mostly in the Bluegrass region) by Kentuckian farmers. If that can’t be called a golden age, we don’t know what can.

The Prohibitionist Era

Things were humming along nicely until cannabis-phobia swept the nation in the mid-1920s. Led by questionable government characters with even more questionable motives, the prohibition of cannabis saw hemp dragged down along with it.

Competition from cash crops like tobacco made hemp’s situation even worse. Even when hemp-derived products were needed, they could be had for a fraction of the cost if imported from Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. The Kentucky River Mills Co., once booming, noted steep declines in business and was forced to downsize.

It was 1937’s Marihuana Tax Act that finally put an end to both cannabis and hemp cultivation, if only for a little while. In hindsight many historians argue that the Act’s real purpose was to protect the interest of the lumber industry. Indeed, it’s passing into law happened just as hemp production was getting more efficient thanks to decorticator machines.

Though it’d actually been sixty years since an Italian hemp farmer invented the first “scavezzatrice”, hemp and its specialized decorticators may well have put the paper industry out of business if it hadn’t been for any government intervention.

With the second world war came enormous demands for textiles, fuel, and fiber. All of a sudden, hemp was useful again! Hemp factories creaked back into action across the country. Having barely survived prohibition, the Kentucky River Mills did the same. It mainly produced marine caulking for an aircraft carrier called the USS Wasp. A USDA-backed film remarked that “hemp grows so luxuriantly in Kentucky that harvesting is sometimes difficult.

But after World War Two things seemed to settle down for good. The Kentucky River Mills held out until 1952; when it closed, it was the last functional hemp factory in the commonwealth region. Hemp and cannabis both found themselves on the CSA’s highly-prohibited schedule 1 list. More decades of prohibition followed…

Industrial Hemp Comes Full Circle

Beginning sometime in the late 80s, hemp seemed to be remembered. It’s only fitting that this remembrance came in the form of a zany Kentuckian figure who went by his first name, Gatewood.

Described by Modern Farmer as a “hemp-promoting, pro-gun, big-grinning, marijuana-loving lawyer”, Gatewood promoted hemp and cannabis at a time when both were still totally taboo. In his view the battle between natural and synthetic products presented one of society’s biggest threats — and Gatewood always backed nature’s cause.

“Does the government have the right [today] to tell man or woman that they cannot plant a seed in God’s green earth and consume the green natural plant that comes up out of it? That seems such an inalienable right.” – Gatewood Galbraith, 1990s

Yet even Gatewood’s quirky blend of logic and passion wasn’t enough to sway the majority. Hemp remained outlawed in Kentucky throughout the 90s. In 1996, actor Woody Harrelson was arrested for planting four hemp seeds in Lee County, Kentucky. There were other acts of defiance too…yet longstanding legislation didn’t bend for them.

But things shifted in 2014, when the Federal Farm Bill made an allowance for statewide hemp pilot programs. Kentucky was among the first States to jump at the chance to grow hemp again.

In fact, one can partially credit Kentucky lawmakers for the inclusion of hemp in 2014’s Farm Bill. A year earlier KY Senate Bill 50 was passed into law, and this bill foreshadowed what was to come in more ways than one. Among other things, KY SB 50:

  • Encouraged the University of Kentucky to lead research on the cultivation of industrial hemp
  • Established the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission
  • Established financing for the Hemp Commission and industrial hemp research
  • Made provision for a licensing process for Kentucky hemp farmers
  • Set up a progressive 5-year plan for hemp research

KY SB 50’s overall goal was to position Kentucky as a forerunner in America’s fledgling adoption of the hemp plant. It worked. When 2014’s Federal Omnibus Bill was passed, its provisions for hemp farming seemed to mirror Kentucky’s version almost word for word.

Inspired by the Farm Bill and armed with the same favorable growing conditions of their ancestors, Kentucky farmers got to work. In 2014, 33 acres of hemp were grown. This first wave of growers hit a pretty steep learning curve, with more than one otherwise-experienced farmer reporting difficulty just getting the seed started.

Every growing season since then has been a little better, and this year Kentuckian farmers are projected to cultivate a total of 42,086 acres of hemp across the state. The plant will be grown in 101 of the 120 counties in the State. This is hemp that will produce textiles and clothing; hempseed oil and CBD oil. It will strengthen Kentucky’s agricultural community and the health of its people.

Once processed, this hemp will make CBD supplements more affordable and more readily available than ever before. Though fiber-type crops were most popular among 2014’s early hemp farmers, CBD-producing hemp has the top spot now, and anlysts say that CBD production will be the best bet in the next couple years. It’s safe to say Kentucky’s hemp industry has gained enough momentum that there’s no going back.

This new era of hemp farming may have come about suddenly, but it’s been many years in the making for Kentucky’s industry pioneers. Though companies like Atalo Holdings Inc are enjoying the fruits of their labor now, Director Joe Hickey jokingly says they were only “an overnight success after 26 years”. It’s been a tumultuous path to success — one that testifies to the pride and grit of Kentucky hemp farmers.

Though Kentucky hemp has a larger presence on the global stage than ever, the State’s hemp enthusiasts definitely haven’t forgotten their roots. A “Heritage Hemp Trail” masterminded by the Kentucky Hempsters weaves its way throughout Danville and Lexington, Frankfort, and Louisville while paying homage to the State’s biggest contributions to hemp’s history.

Among its best highlights? Danville’s first hemp crop, of course, as well as the historic Farmington Plantation. This plantation was once home to a 550-acre hemp farm; thanks to a little help from the United Hemp Industries and Schiavi Seeds LLC, it’s now being revitalized.

Perhaps this revitalization is what describes Kentucky hemp most accurately. All across the State farmers are returning to something that’s both very old and very new, growing a crop that Kentucky truly grows best.

Expect Kentucky’s hemp and CBD markets to only get larger in the future. There’s still a lot of, well, growing room within the industry. And there are still many people who haven’t yet realized the benefits of hemp and CBD. At Kentucky Crafted, we’re honored to play a role in helping the masses catch on.

It seems like the US government is finally catching on, too. As current Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell proudly stated after the passing of 2018’s Federal Farm Bill and the pro-hemp provisions he gave it: “We are at the beginning of a new era, and I cannot wait to see what comes next. […] I look forward to continuing to support hemp’s bright future in the Bluegrass State.”

Things have come full circle, indeed.