Hemp, broadband concerns brought before state panel

Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, asked a question concerning urban students learning about agriculture during a meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky Farm Bureau President Mark Haney said his organization’s advice for Kentucky’s growing number of hemp producers is “be careful.”

Haney told the Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture Monday that farmers are encouraged to enter the growing hemp industry, but with minimal risk. Kentucky is still in its first five years of modern hemp production which began in 2014 under the state’s Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program.

The research pilot program is ending this year, with the state’s Hemp Licensing Program entering a new stage of commercial production in 2020.

“We tell all the producers, and have been saying all along, be careful. Go slow. Don’t risk any more than you can afford to put at risk,” said Haney. The caution comes as many farmers, he said, look to hemp as a replacement for once-reliable sources of income—like tobacco—amid today’s agriculture market disruptions and downturns.

Making hemp as profitable as tobacco once was to Kentucky farmers, if possible, will take time, said Haney.

“It would be wonderful if we could do that,” he said. “So we’re telling folks, ‘help us build the industry and don’t just try to swing for a home run.’”

Haney said the Farm Bureau has formed a hemp advisory committee to work on issues that could help farmers build the industry moving forward. That work, he said, could come in handy in any future legislative discussions concerning the farmer’s role in the hemp industry. Haney said he hopes hemp processors will take a similar approach regarding their role in the industry.

“Most of the questions about hemp that I’ve heard were not about production of hemp. It was about the processing of hemp and how we transport it, how we get paid for it, (about) the systems from the farm gate through the rest of the pipeline,” said Haney.

Rep. Joe Graviss, D-Versailles, asked Haney if the Farm Bureau’s hemp advisory committee could look into whether Kentucky farmers are being fairly compensated for their crop. He also encouraged a standard means to test hemp products, saying he would like the organization to look into “standardization in testing” of hemp products on store shelves to make sure “what is on the shelf at a gas station or a pharmacy is actually going to contain the same stuff.”

Concerns about cash flow to hemp producers also voiced by Graviss were shared earlier in the meeting with Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy Executive Director Warren Beeler, who said farmers have had high hopes for hemp amid uncertainty in other agricultural markets. Now farmers are finding that hemp production brings its own uncertainty, he told lawmakers.

“We don’t know exactly where we’re going to end up,” said Beeler. “But hemp has a chance to help us. It has a chance to be maybe that tobacco that we thought we’d never have a replacement for.”

One of the most critical issues facing many Kentucky farmers, said Haney, is the need for high-speed broadband. While most Kentuckians have internet access, Haney said rural areas remain that don’t have the connection speed necessary to use high-tech apps and programs now commonplace in modern agriculture.

“If you can’t operate the device that you’re working with because the speed is so low that you can’t even download the programming … it’s pretty sad. And it’s important to our members more now than it has ever been before,” said Haney, adding that his organization will likely approach the Kentucky General Assembly for help on the matter in the future.

Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris, an attorney and cattle farmer, said internet connectivity is important to him and his constituents, including a number of rural Kentuckians with limited internet access. West said that while full implementation the KentuckyWired project—which is intended to provide gigabit-speed access statewide—is expected within the next year or so, he wonders what support there is from the private sector for improved internet speed.

“They have to address these issues to get more service out to our farmers and rural areas,” West said.

Haney said the Farm Bureau is communicating with the private sector and is “hoping to put together some stakeholders that will continue to work on this in the near future.”

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