Alternative crops

In 1960, burley tobacco markets were the hub of activity for Kentucky farmers with more than 525 million pounds of the product moving from farmers’ hands to tobacco companies via a government-supported auction system.

With the elimination of government supports and auction houses, that number dropped by 2006 to close to 125 million pounds. In 2014, the most recent year for which numbers are available, Kentucky farmers produced more than 163 million pounds of burley. The National Agriculture Statistics Service said about 13 million pounds of that was produced in the immediate vicinity, with 2.28 million in Warren County.

Even without those large tobacco subsidies, Kentucky’s agriculture cash receipts have mostly steadily grown, topping $6 billion in 2014. That number was expected to decline last year and this year with depressed tobacco markets, the end of the tobacco buyout program and other issues, according to a report from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

All that said, Kentucky could benefit from emerging agriculture markets such as canola and hemp and now possibly hops.

Canola is a proven market, and there is a processing plant in nearby Trenton. Oil from canola harvested here is eventually further processed elsewhere to become food-grade oil.

Hemp and hops both have a history with Kentucky, but both have some hurdles to clear before garnering widespread appeal.

Kentucky continues its experiment and research into industrial hemp. The product is mostly produced now in Canada and is used in clothing and foods across the world. The products themselves are sold in Kentucky but the hemp they are comprised of is not yet commercially grown here.

Kentucky began its hemp production in 1775 and went on to be the nation’s leading producer in 1850, having harvested 40,000 tons, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Hemp’s value for its many industrial uses is clear, and it has value to farmers as an alternative crop. We hope the state continues to pursue it for commercial production.

With no real legal hoops to jump through, hops also could be an exciting alternative for farmers. While most people know hops for the fruity like quality it provides craft beer, the plant also has a history of being medicinal.

Hops production was widespread in the state until the early 20th century. Mildew, pests, droughts and fluctuating prices forced hops producers in the eastern U.S. to cease operations or move to the Pacific Northwest, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

Kentucky will use experts at Western Kentucky University and UK to look at the feasibility of the crop for the state. We hope the outcome is favorable for the crop that could help bolster Kentucky’s fledgling craft beer industry.

Both UK and WKU have formidable agriculture programs that provide valuable experience for their students and research for the market. Both schools also are involved in looking at the feasibility of hemp as a Kentucky ag product. We look forward to their findings.

Daily News of Bowling Green

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