World-renowned Kentucky Hemp

Hemp hackling machines, Versailles, KY

The Kentucky General Assembly debated hemp during its 2013 legislative session and passed Senate Bill 50 before the session concluded.

Hemp flowers

Hemp flowers

Senate Bill 50 establishes an administrative framework for industrial hemp production in Kentucky.  However, industrial hemp must be removed from the federal definition of marijuana before Kentucky farmers can legally grow industrial hemp again.  Historically, industrial hemp has been very important to Kentucky’s agriculture and manufacturing industries.

The fertile soils of Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region made it the leading industrial hemp producer in the United States.  Kentucky hemp was world-renowned for its height, hardiness, fiber yield, quality and rapid maturation and commonly yielded five to eight tons of dry stalks per acre.  This strain is believed to have been cultivated in Kentucky around 1850 from the mixing of Chinese and European lineages, but is now considered extinct. The seed stock held at the USDA’s National Seed Storage Laboratory was discarded in the 1950s because hemp was no longer considered an important fiber resource.

Kentucky historically has had three main eras of hemp production.  Between the 1770s – 1860s, over 160 Kentucky factories manufactured hemp products including rope, cloth and floor covering and employed several thousand workers, with Lexington becoming a hub of the industry.  The availability of superior fibers such as Manila fiber and the growing market for tobacco as an alternative cash crop led to the decline of hemp production until a brief resurgence of production that occurred during WWII.  Reduced access to Manila from the Japanese-occupied Philippines caused industrial hemp to be grown as a substitute with Kentucky chosen as the site of seed production; planting 36,000 acres in 1942.  A total of 60 million pounds of hemp fiber were produced before the project was discontinued at the end of the war.

In the 1970s, when industrial hemp’s cousin, marijuana, was being grown in large quantities in Kentucky and other states, the U.S. Congress designated hemp, marijuana and heroin as “schedule 1” drugs, making it illegal to grow hemp in the United States without a permit.

Oral history interviews with hemp workers and about the hemp industry in Kentucky can be found on Pass the Word, Kentucky’s Oral History Discovery Web Tool.

Pass the Word Challenge #11

What are two collections on Pass the Word that talk about agriculture in Kentucky?

Industrial Hemp in Kentucky Gallery

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