FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Kentucky’s new agriculture commissioner says he will work to establish the state’s industrial hemp industry, combat hunger in rural areas and gauge the potential of hops as a cash crop.

In addition, Ryan Quarles wants to help Kentucky farmers break into international markets, including eastern Europe and Asia, and push businesses to include more “Kentucky-sourced ingredients,” such as grain for bourbon.

Those items were part of an informal agenda Quarles presented this week at a meeting of the House agriculture and small business committee. Quarles, a Republican who served four years in the House of Representatives, took office earlier this month.

Quarles said he will “fully support” continuing funding for food banks in the state’s upcoming two-year budget, which in 2014 included $1.2 million for the Farms to Food Banks program from the Governor’s office of agricultural policy.

And he plans to establish a panel that addresses “hunger and food insecurity” across the state. The commission will aim to support food banks, as well as better coordinate food resources across counties and regions, Quarles said in an interview.

“We hope to, first off, create an inventory of what’s working, what’s not working in Kentucky before developing a strategic plan,” he said.

The commission is being assembled and expects to start work next month, he said.

More than 16 percent of Kentuckians were “food insecure” in 2013, meaning they did not have regular access to nutritional food, according to data from Feeding America, a nonprofit organization. The highest concentrations were in eastern Kentucky, where a cluster of counties had rates above 20 percent.

“It’s not an urban problem. It’s not a rural problem. It’s a Kentucky problem,” said Tamara Sandberg, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks. She said Quarles has asked her to serve on the commission. 

Hemp goals

Kentucky is in its third year of growing industrial hemp as part of a pilot program authorized by the U.S. Farm Bill in 2014.

Quarles, who voted for a 2013 measure in the General Assembly that cleared the way for hemp to be grown in Kentucky, said his goal for 2016 is “demonstrating that this can work here, there’s viability and that there’s an economic value to this crop.”

The hemp growing and research program is exempt from a federal law that treats the crop as a controlled substance. Industrial hemp comes from the same plant that produces marijuana, but it contains a lower level of the mind-altering ingredient THC.

“When the time is right we will hopefully approach Congress and ask them for a full-blown decoupling of industrial hemp from its cousin (marijuana), which will clear up a lot of issues right now,” Quarles told lawmakers. 

In an interview, Quarles declined to provide a timeline for such a request. But he noted other actions that favor the “complete commercialization of industrial hemp,” including a provision in last month’s federal spending bill allowing hemp grown in the pilot program to be shipped between states.

Kentucky has 24 companies processing industrial hemp and more than 120 farmers raising hemp on about 1,740 acres, according to state data.

“The best thing about industrial hemp is that it’s economic development,” Quarles said. “You’re helping create jobs, and Kentucky right now is the best-positioned state out of everyone else researching industrial hemp and we want to make sure we maintain that competitive edge.”

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