Growing Warriors: Kentucky veterans turn to farming, including hemp

For Insider Louisville
Published: MAY 21, 2014


Mike Lewis stands in front of a microphone under something that resembles a church revival tent on the front lawn of his 425-acre farm in Mt. Vernon, Ky.

About 90 people are seated under the tent, waiting for a call from the Agriculture Commissioner’s office telling them whether the DEA is going drive down the back roads of Rockcastle County and arrest them for planting hemp seeds.

 Former Ky state Sen. Joey Pendleton and Craig Lee, two long-time hemp advocates, wait for a phone call from Agriculture Commissioner James Comer's office, to find out whether hemp seeds can finally be planted in Kentucky again.

Former state Sen. Joey Pendleton (right) and Craig Lee, two longtime hemp advocates, wait for a phone call from Agriculture Commissioner James Comer’s office, to find out whether hemp seeds can finally be planted in Kentucky again.

The crowd doesn’t look bothered, though, and their warm applause is silenced when Mike’s cell rings. He puts the folks from Commissioner Jamie Comer’s office on speaker so the whole crowd hears the news: U.S. District Judge John Heyburn hasn’t made an official ruling, but says Mike will have to apply for a permit to get the seeds from U.S. Customs. The seeds can’t go in the ground today, but soon they’ll be sown.

Mike pockets the cell.

“The DEA has chosen the wrong fight,” he says, laughing.

Veteran transplants

Mike is a U.S. veteran and a private grower involved in one of the Kentucky Agriculture Department’s eight pilot projects studying industrial hemp cultivation. He and his brother, Fred-Curtis, are scheduled to plant the first crop of hemp Kentucky has seen in decades. Planting season ends in about two weeks.

But there’s a problem: A couple of weeks back, 250 pounds of Italian hemp seed cleared U.S. Customs in Chicago and was headed for Kentucky when it was seized by DEA agents in Louisville. After days of negotiation with the agency, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture decided to sue the DEA, U.S. Customs, the U.S. Department of Justice, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous. I served 13 years in the Army. I did two tours in Afghanistan, a tour of Iraq, multiple tours in northern Africa… all for the freedom that we’re witnessing today. And they’re trying to just take it away from us.”

That’s Fred-Curtis. In 2009, after a military career spent as a Special Forces medic and Korean linguist, an injury forced him into early retirement. His studies led him to veterinary medicine, and then his family led him to farming.

“It was kind of a rough transition for me because I’d just gotten out, and I didn’t know my place in society at the moment. So I was going through some transitional problems, and the farming is what brought me back,” he says.

His 6-year-old daughter, Emma, rushes up to him clutching a worm she’s found, squealing with delight.

“The kids are excited,” he says. “They’ve got farming in their blood.”

Growing-Warriors-LogoA Kentucky transplant by way of North Carolina, Fred-Curtis is moving to the state with his wife and four children to manage the farm with Mike and build the Kentucky branch of their organization, Growing Warriors, which trains veterans to transition into farming and running small agricultural businesses.

“We left [North Carolina] because we couldn’t get jobs,” he says.

Fred-Curtis’ complaint is familiar to many vets in the state. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that among Kentucky’s 332,000 veterans, about 12,000 were unemployed in 2013.

He says that he and his brother have been contacted by more veterans than they can handle, all looking for help from the Growing Warriors, and by buyers thinking of moving to Kentucky. “So we’re looking at bringing jobs in for those as well, and starting businesses that weren’t here.”

The farm has already been contracted to provide kale, romaine lettuce, and beets for a Lexington juicery, and Fred-Curtis tells me that despite the blow-up surrounding the brothers’ hemp crop, the farm will primarily yield vegetables, with plans for a chicken-and-egg operation.

Hemp seeds

Hemp seeds | Photo by Rae Hodge

The hemp, say the Lewis brothers, will be experimental: They want to grow as many varieties of hemp as they can in 1-2 acre plots, then hand-process enough varieties to test the possibilities of each strain and determine the best production methods for yields in fibers, oils, and seed.

“The problem is the seeds,” he says. His hand disappears into the pocket of his overalls and emerges with a scoop of edible hemp seed. “We can get plenty of seeds the right-wrong way, through the back door, but getting them through the front door is obviously the problem we’re having.”

Charge the Hill Joey

Among the day’s handful of speakers is former state Sen. Joey Pendleton, who after years of industrial hemp advocacy as a legislator in Frankfort, says he wouldn’t have missed this day for anything in the world.

“I’ve been handling the Senate bill for eight years, and let me tell you, it’s lonely out there,” Pendleton tells the crowd. “The first time I carried it I couldn’t even get a co-sponsor. It took me three years to even get two of them.”

Off-stage, Pendleton says divisive politics within the Kentucky State Police have contributed to hemp’s uphill battle. “You can almost draw a line from 75 east that’s totally against it—a lot of the law enforcement. And you take 64 west, and all of the law enforcement doesn’t have a problem with it.”

Although hemp’s marginal THC content ensures the plant provides no intoxicating effects, it has been grouped with drugs like heroin since 1970, when it was classified as a Schedule One drug. As such, its seeds are subject to the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act, even though state and federal rules are a little more relaxed with Kentucky’s 2013 passage of Senate Bill 50, the law behind the hemp pilot program, and the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill.

But the Lewis brothers may have more to worry about than the DEA.

Greener yields from the fields

According to a 2013 report from the University of Kentucky, “Economic Considerations for Growing Industrial Hemp,” farmers looking for tobacco and soy alternatives may find hemp is no miracle crop:

If Kentucky’s hemp industry would materialize to the size of the Canadian hemp industry, projected gross sales would total less than 1% of current Kentucky farm cash receipts. At 2012 Canadian acreage totaling 58,000 acres, Kentucky has four counties that each average around 150,000 acres of corn and soybeans.

In other words, converting 10% of the corn/soybean acres in these four Kentucky counties would approximate Canadian hemp acreage in 2012. On the other hand, it would take around 25% of the corn/soybean acres in the Bluegrass crop reporting district (23 county area) to match Canadian hemp acreage in 2012.

The report does have a few hopeful conclusions, however. It admits that while China and Canada have dominance over the global market, the relatively small U.S. market for industrial hemp products is growing.

“And will likely continue to grow,” the report reads. “And under certain assumptions (which are still very speculative at this point), hemp production for the seed-only enterprise could be profitable for Kentucky farmers.”

The skepticism expressed in the report serves to remind farmers that midwifing the rebirth of an industry is precarious business. Mike doesn’t seem to be shaken, though. He argues that although few jobs might be created by farming hemp, no jobs will be created by maintaining a ban on the crop.

“We need jobs,” he says, “That isn’t bad that we need infrastructure; that’s good. We fund bridges and crap all the time just to create some little jobs so why can’t we build an industry that supports communities?”

When he finally steps down from the podium to talk to a couple of reporters, he curses the bureaucratic hoops he says he’ll have to jump through in the next couple of days, but the veteran still calls it a win. 

“We still got the results we wanted, and we did it through the democratic process. While there is still trouble, there’s still a way to fix things,” he says. “It’s a victory for everybody. It’s good. Let’s have this dialogue. Let’s get this squared because farmers need to be growing this crop. We need to move forward.”

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