FRANKFORT, Ky. — In the last year, much as been reported about hemp as new legislation has passed allowing research efforts to begin on a crop that has been outlawed for nearly 70 years.
Much of the information has to do with what hemp can actually be used for. During World War II, it was produced primarily for the production of hemp ropes. But there are a host of industries that can and do use refined products from the plant making anything from plastic used in automobile production to clothing.
But there is another less publicized use that has many in the energy industry interested because of the potential the plant has to be an alternative energy source.
Roger Ford, CEO of Patriot BioEnergy in Pikeville, said he thinks there is great promise for hemp to be used, including as an input for emissions reductions in terms of coal-fired power plants; as a way to reclaim post-mining land, which is a big concern from an environmental standpoint; and to transition and diversify the economies in coal-producing counties in Kentucky.
"I think there is the potential for it," he said. "We believe that hemp yield per acre, which is fairly high, would serve well especially for small land owners."
While that argument has been made, the recent farm bill only allows for research in states that have passed hemp-producing legislation.
"We are working with some Canadian companies on development of a hemp pellet market and producing that crop in Canada," Ford said. "At this point, we’re waiting to see what this research does."
He thinks part of that research should be devoted to looking at what has been done and how hemp production has been handled in Canada.
Ford also thinks that once the research is completed on what is the best variety of seeds to be used here, it should be a matter of getting those seeds here and begin production.
That can’t happen until the federal government takes hemp off the Controlled Substances list, something the farm bill did not do.
Regardless of if and when that happens, Ford said there hasn’t been much discussion about hemp as an energy application coming out of Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky.
"It’s rather disheartening that that is the case," he said. "And from my personal perspective, I hope we don’t turn this over to large corporation. I think assisting the small family farm is a big thing in terms of transitioning from say, tobacco to hemp."
Ford said the research phase of growing hemp will likely continue until the government corrects the mistake it made of outlawing hemp production to begin with. "Until they correct that error and recognize that hemp is not marijuana and that it has no narcotic value, then I think we are in a holding pattern," he said.
Last summer, the University of Kentucky conducted a study to examine the economic impact growing industrial hemp would have.
The study concluded the impact would be relatively small compared to the rest of Kentucky’s ag industry.
But from an energy standpoint, there was little mention. In Europe, however, there are more efforts to use the crop in this way. Thomas Prade, postdoctoral researcher at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, wrote earlier this year that, "With its potentially high biomass yield and its suitability to fit into existing crop rotations, hemp could not only complement but exceed other available energy crops."
Ford said in order for his company to conduct the research needed to produce hemp in a way to use as an energy source or additive, full production will have to be allowed. For now, however, their efforts will have to be focused outside the U.S.
"We’re not waiting on things to happen here in Kentucky. We’re looking at working to get this right now. That’s what our focus is," he said. "Until the U.S. decides this is viable, we’re going to continue our efforts where we can."
Patriot BioEnergy has conducted research on other crops that could be used as energy sources, but Ford said what research the company has been able to conduct related to hemp points to the plant as being one of the best sources as an energy crop.
He added that he would like to hear the thoughts of the Kentucky agriculture commissioner and legislators on using hemp as an energy feedstock and would like to have their support.
"We’ll write the check, but it would be great to have the officials interested in the energy application of industrial hemp in Kentucky," he said.