McConnell hemp forum news conference

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- After industrial hemp was legalized in the 2018 National Farm Bill, it promised to be Kentucky's next big cash crop, providing a lot of jobs both on and off the farm.

But before that can happen, the federal government must first write regulations governing the product, which was illegal for decades.

Growers, processors and manufacturers gathered at the Kentucky Exposition Center on Monday for a hemp forum sponsored by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. McConnell invited officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hear from Kentuckians as the agency begins writing the rules for hemp.

U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture Greg Ibach said Kentucky blazed a trail with its early entry into the hemp industry.

"Kentucky is a leader that we are looking to at USDA to be able to help guide us," Ibach said

Third-generation Kentucky farmer Joseph Sisk began growing small amounts of hemp three years ago.

"We're just intrigued by it," he said. "We knew that there was some chance that it would become something that was a real viable product."

Sisk attended Monday's forum to give input regarding the challenges he and others are experiencing as they try to grow the industry from scratch.

Among them are the lack of federal crop insurance, which limits access to banks.

"That can be an issue with their financing for their operation if they're growing a crop where they have no protection of risk," he said.

U.S. agriculture officials assured growers they are trying to craft crop insurance regulations that make sense for both farmers and taxpayers.

"It is a challenge," said Mark Barbre, administrator of the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation’s Risk Management Agency. "If we get a product out that does not work for producers, it doesn't do anybody any good."

Also among the early challenges facing the hemp industry is interstate shipping of a product that looks exactly like its illegal cousin, marijuana.

Some states are stopping trucks on the road.

"There are some glitches that remain to be worked out.," McConnell said. "Some of it may require legislation, and if it does, I'll be there to do it."

As the bugs are worked out, the question remains whether hemp really will unseat tobacco as the state's traditional king crop.

"The honest answer is we just don't know yet," Quarles said. "The numbers are very promising."

Those invested in the industry are counting on those numbers to eventually add up.

"Overall, it's been the most difficult thing I've dealt with in my career of farming," Sisk said. "This is something that will be profitable for producers going forward."

The USDA is aiming to have hemp regulations in place in time for the 2020 growing season.

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I cover a range of stories for WDRB, but really enjoy tracking what's going on at our State Capitol. I grew up on military bases all over the world, but am a Kentuckian at heart. I'm an EKU alum, and have lived in Louisville for 30 years.