PIKEVILLE — While much of the debate over whether to legalize industrial hemp centers around the crop’s potential for a Kentucky agriculture industry that has been decimated by the fall of Big Tobacco, one area business leader says the big money lies in a different direction.
Industrial hemp has been a hot topic of debate in both Frankfort and Washington, as the state Senate passed a bill to legalize the crop in Kentucky, 31-6. The bill faces an uncertain future as it heads to the House of Representatives, as House Speaker Greg Stumbo has publicly expressed reservations about it, telling the Lexington Herald-Leader earlier this month that the issue needs further study, because it is not certain the crop has a market.
Meanwhile, in the nation’s capital, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Mitch McConnell introduced a bill last week to legalize the plant nationwide.
Hemp proponents extol its virtues as a means to recover some of the losses caused by the collapse of tobacco. In the 1990s, tobacco averaged over $800 million a year for Kentucky farmers, but that figured has been cut by more than half in recent years.
Meanwhile, Kentucky has a historical legacy as a chief producer of hemp. When the crop was legal, Kentucky produced $5 million worth of the plant in 1850, the crop’s peak production year in the state. That $5 million then would be worth more than $135 million today, when adjusted for inflation.
But Roger Ford, chief executive officer of Patriot Bioenergy, in Pikeville, says both sides are missing the bigger picture — “Nobody’s talking about the energy aspect.”
While growing hemp can open up a new revenue stream for the state’s struggling farmers, Ford said there is far more money to be made by creating value-added products by processing the crop in Kentucky.
“That’s the key to this whole thing,” Ford said. “It’s not about growing it and shipping it somewhere else.”
Ford says hemp could boost the lagging coal industry and help Kentucky become a self-sufficient energy producer through two avenues — biomass and biodiesel.
By burning hemp fiber briquettes with coal, Ford says the local industry could benefit. The added hemp would result in overall lower emissions, giving longevity to the local market at a time when concerns over greenhouse gases are sapping demand.
“This could help coal by creating a locally produced product that could be blended,” Ford said. “We’re not competing with coal. We’re work to find ways to improve and make it more competitive.”
He says Patriot is currently conducting tests to determine the viability of using hemp as a biomass additive to coal, and he expects the results to be favorable. He said his company has also explored other crops, such as sugar beets and sorghum. While the beets would also be a good fit, he said, a low yield-per-acre makes sorghum not cost-effective.
But the biomass aspect of hemp only takes into account the fiber from the stalk of the plant. Another attractive element of hemp, Ford says, is the oil from hemp seed, which he said could be used in the production of biodiesel.
Ford cited a study by the Eastern Kentucky University Center for Renewable and Alternative Fuel Technologies, which showed that a single commercial bio-finery producing 50 million gallons of biodiesel a year would mean $480 million and 2,000 jobs for the state’s economy. A handful of those refineries, Ford said, could make the state a net producer of energy.
While Ford says such a refinery could produce biodiesel using the oil from hemp or any other suitable plant, University of Connecticut researchers published a study in 2010 finding hemp a “viable and even attractive” feedstock for biodiesel production. Among hemp’s strengths are its ability to “grow like a weed” in infertile soils without requiring a lot of water or fertilizer, as well as a high efficiency of conversion that allows 97 percent of hemp oil to be converted into biodiesel.
The ability to take advantage of infertile soils creates another opportunity for hemp production to find a home within the coal industry, Ford said, because the plant could be grown as a means of reclaiming mine lands. Coal companies could find themselves extracting fossil fuels and growing a renewable energy source, using the same land.
“It creates a strategy not of competition, but of integration and diversification,” Ford said.