It may look like similar to a marijuana plant, but industrial hemp is quite different from its relative.
Industrial hemp production in Kentucky is back under a pilot program introduced in the Farm Bill legislation of 2014. Under the language of that law, farmers in Kentucky and other states began growing industrial hemp through research pilot programs at the state’s universities and Department of Agriculture.
Locally, Mason County farmer Joe Collins is growing five acres of hemp under the pilot program. As the guest speaker recently of the Maysville Rotary Club, Collins explained industrial hemp contains only 0.3 percent of THC (tetrahydrocannabinoids) while marijuana has anywhere from 5-10 percent of THC.
And therein lies the difference: industrial hemp doesn’t get a person “high” and can be used in the manufacture of commodities like clothing and rope.
The first hemp was grown in Kentucky in 1775 in Danville on Clark’s Run Creek. There was a reemergence of hemp production during World War II, but it wasn’t long after that the plant was outlawed and considered a controlled substance.
Kentucky’s earlier settlers brought hemp to the area. Hemp, as well as flax and wool, were the best options for fabric in a region of the country where cotton didn’t grow well.
Counties producing the most hemp were located in the Bluegrass region of the state and were either near or along the Kentucky River. Fayette, Woodford, Shelby, Clark, Scott, Bourbon, Jessamine, Mason, Franklin, Boyle and Lincoln proved to be the largest hemp-producing counties during the 19th century.
During the 1830s, Maysville was the state’s second largest producer of hemp products, bags, rope and twine.
The Old Hemp Warehouse once stood at the corner of Sutton and West Third streets. The building was constructed sometime in the 1840s and later became the Leslie H. Arthur American Legion Post 13.
Research on the property shows that William Phillips sold the property in 1837 to Thomas Shreve for $15,000. In his 1902 will, O.H. P Thomas left the property, then called Wells Warehouse, to his wife, Mary. It was conveyed to the American Legion in 1933 from the Maysville Produce Company.
In 1996, the building and its history were at the center of controversy, when the Mason County Fiscal Court, after seeking other alternatives, voted to have the building razed for a new justice center. The old courthouse was out of space and the Administrative Office of the Courts in Frankfort financed the construction of the new building.
Newspaper accounts at the time show a divided community, with members of the Mason County Historical Society and the community battling local officials or supporting them.
And although Danville had converted its old hemp warehouse into a student center, no alternative uses could be found for the hemp warehouse in Maysville.
The following history on hemp in Mason County is taken from History of Maysville and Mason County., Ky by G. Glenn Clift, published in 1936.
Unfortunately, the history is brief and doesn’t illustrate just how much this particular crop infused the local economy until its gradual decline following the American Civil War.
“Hemp was formerly the staple crop of the county, reaching its highest yield in 1847. From that time the acreage gradually declined, and today cultivation has entirely ceased.”
“Agricultural interests were boosted in Mason County with the introduction, in the spring of 1853, of a new species oh hemp, the seed for which was brought by L. Maltby from abroad.”
Maltby was in France in 1851 and learned there had been introduced the So-ma or Chinese Hemp, which was found to yield much more than the Russian. It required longer and warmer seasons than those of France to mature the seed, and consequently the seed was raised in Algiers and imported into France to be sown for lint, as it gave a yield one-third greater than the Russian hemp.
He communicated this information to the Maysville press.
“…I brought the seed to this country and in the spring of ’52, Mr. C. A. Marshall and myself both planted seed of it, and I sent some to Louisiana. Mr. M. succeeded in raising seed there, finding it mature about three weeks later than the native plant. In Louisiana it was easily raised…This spring (1853) Captain Peyton J. Key, near this place (Washington) sowed about an acre with this seed. The hemp is now standing, and is some two feet higher than the native hemp sown on the same day in an adjoining piece of ground. It will average nearly ten feet in height, stand thicker on the ground and will not be ready to cut till next week (September 1) – some ten days later than the hemp sown by the side of it. It is of a light green, with a narrow leaf, of deep indentation. It promises to lint very heavily. As far as any comparison can be made with the old variety, in the present green state of both, some farmers think it will give double the lints…”
In 1854, the area suffered a severe drought, which forced higher prices locally….in January 1855, an agent was sent (by farmers) to France and Russia for the express purpose of buying in those countries 30,000 bushels of hemp seed. So severe had been the drought that seed enough could not be found in the United States. The agent was able to procure only 4,000 bushels, which was imported to Mason County at Maysville…”
The following is taken from the Explore Kentucky History website:
“Kentuckians also manufactured hemp into marketable products. The largest use of hemp was in making rope and the woven bagging that bundled cotton bales. Ropewalks turned out thousands of yards of hemp cordage, and factory looms in Lexington, Danville, and Frankfort wove the bagging. Another significant consumer of Kentucky hemp was the United States Navy, which used the rope for ships’ rigging.
Hemp production declined during the Civil War. Although some hemp was still grown in Kentucky at that time, the cotton market in the deep South, and, therefore, the market for cordage and bagging, was cut off. Farmers instead looked to other crops that were more marketable. After the war, the hemp market fluctuated with the cotton market. With slavery abolished, finding labor proved difficult.
Hemp made a strong comeback during the Spanish-American War and again during World War One and World War Two. Although the production of hemp became illegal during the latter part of the 20th century, recent years have seen an increased interest in producing industrial hemp in Kentucky.”
Research for this article conducted at the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center, Clift’s History of Maysville and Mason County and www.explorekyhistory.ky.gov.