Jake Graves used to be a Kentucky hemp farmer, but that was 50 years ago. Now he’s out front in the battle to bring the crop back. He calls it one of our unalienable rights — “the freedom to farm.”
Jacob Hughes Graves III is one of Kentucky’s native sons. He can trace his family in America back to the 1600s and lives in the grand old plantation home in Lexington built by his great-grandfather in 1852. Hemp farming in his family goes back at least 200 years. He has nine children and 17 grandchildren and at age 70, he is probably one of the few Kentucky hemp farmers still around. “The Last of the Mohicans,” Graves calls himself.
He went to war in 1944 and when he returned a year later, he harvested his last crop. Though the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association had been organized to help in the war effort, hemp production declined dramatically following war’s end and the Co-op was disbanded. But in 1994 with the emergence of a modern hemp marketplace, it was reincorporated to assist state farmers in reestablishing the industry. Jake Graves was named Co-op President.
He is a venerated figure throughout the state. In addition to being the owner and operator of picturesque Leafland Farm where he makes his home, he has served as Chairman of the Board of two banks and been a member of the board of trustees for three universities including the University of Kentucky. People value Jake Graves’ opinion. He knows farming. He is also glib and gets to the point quickly.
“This is business,” he says in his sonorous Southern drawl. “There aren’t many crops that can shelter, clothe and feed you, and leave the soil in good condition. The world needs it.”
He doesn’t have a lot patience for the anti-hemp rhetoric that concentrates on the evils of marijuana. “The Co-op has no interest in changing any of the laws pertaining to marijuana other than to distinguish it from industrial hemp,” he says.
But if the subject does come up, he has a stock answer which is mighty hard to debate: “When you’re sittin’ at home with your family and having bowl of popcorn, does it pop into your mind that a bottle of whiskey comes from the same source? You got all different kinds of corn–feed corn, calico corn, white corn. That’s what I’m tryin’ to tell you about fiber hemp.” You can’t argue with the common sense of a farmer.
There’s a long history of farmer sense to be had when you talk about hemp in Kentucky. In 1787, an item appeared in the Kentucky Gazette submitted by a female reader encouraging Kentuckians to avoid imports and grow their own food and fiber crops, especially hemp. “Shall we not be as comfortable and lovely clothed in homespun as in foreign lace and brocade?” she asked.
Many other newspaper articles and advertisements from the era indicate that horses, paper, food and even that old standby, money, were offered in trade for hemp. By the 1800s, hemp stood as the premier cash crop for Kentucky farmers. Many historians claim Kentucky was our nation’s leader in hemp production. It’s no secret why. Kentucky is known for its high-quality soil, reliable rainfall and abundant sunshine.
But the same combination of factors which hurt the industry in other states damaged Kentucky’s hemp industry during the early 1900s. Declining prices, labor scarcity, competition from other fiber crops and synthetic materials, as well as, industrial and socioeconomic upheavals, all contributed to a gradual decline of hemp farming which was only slightly alleviated by a brief period of production during World War II.
Today, however, Kentucky farmers are poised to revitalize the hemp industry. They are pioneers, part of a long and honorable American tradition of self-reliance, thrift and respect for Nature’s bounty. Their vehicle is the reborn Kentucky Hemp Growers Co-op.
The primary function of the Co-op is to serve as a clearinghouse through which farmers may negotiate and contract with different industries. Graves believes that farmers need to act cooperatively in a unified group in order to participate in the hemp industry on any equitable basis. He also says, “The farmer must have some say in how the industry evolves and what direction it takes.”
The Co-op is not just a farmers’ think tank either. Late last spring, Co-op Executive Director Joe Hickey mounted a comprehensive hemp fiber conference in Lexington. Farmers and researchers alike attended, as did textile spinners and weavers, equipment manufacturers, paper processors and a host of politicians and public policy makers.
At the public forum that was scheduled at the end of the conference, Graves spoke first, invoking hemp’s prominent place in Kentucky history and the legacy of hemp in his own family. He then retired to the back of the conference hall to listen to others talk of the legitimate value that hemp offers our nation. While speakers aired glowing reports of the crop’s possibilities, the mood in the room grew buoyant–and the farmer’s smile on Jake Graves’ face grew wider. By the end of the forum, his smile had turned into a triumphant chuckle.
Jake Graves’ dreams of a Kentucky hemp comeback are very much alive.
Written by: Jerry Roberts
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