Besides the infamous Kentucky Fried Chicken, let's dig into Kentucky's long but not lost Golden Age - the Hemp Industry.
For those of you who got the chance to read into the history of Hemp (especially the American leg of it) you might already know that Kentucky was set to become the nation's most productive hemp supplier even though hemp production did not start there until 1775.
However, by 1810 Kentucky gained fame and reputation thanks to hemp - the fiber that was called "the grand staple of Kentucky".
"Hemp was not native to Kentucky, and had to be brought from New England or European countries. Early settlers had difficulty growing surplus crops without a consistent supply of hemp seed, so once the supply was established, a local industry began to develop. Between 1790 and 1800, settlements were transformed into attractive communities of fine homes, landed estates, and diverse manufacturing and mercantile enterprises — and hemp was regarded “the most certain crop and the most valuable commodity” produced in the region."
40 years later, in 1850 the United States of America had a total number of 8327 hemp plantations, making hemp the nominee for the 2nd place on the American hierarchy, behind cotton and tobacco production. Most of these plantations were located (of course) in Kentucky while the remainder of them were spread throughout US states like Tennessee, Missouri and Mississippi.
Despite having and growing an "in house" production of hemp, northern manufacturers usually preferred to work with foreign hemp, especially Russian hemp. They were stating that the main reason for choosing Russian hemp was the superior manner in which the fiber used to be processed abroad.
In Russia, for example, the hemp stalks were hung on rocks as soon as they were cut. If the weather remained dry - the stalks were not disturbed. If by chance it rained, they were placed in a klin. In case you are not familiar with the term "klin" it is basically an oven for firing, drying, baking, hardening, or burning a substance, particularly clay products but originally also grain and meal.
Regardless of how they were initially dried, on the third day after harvesting, the plants were completely submerged in warm water for three weeks and then cold water for five weeks more. Then, they were allowed to dry for two additional weeks, followed by a second kiln drying for twenty four hours. Finally, the stalks were broken. The husks were torn off and the fiber was carefully collected. The finished fiber was then placed in store rooms until it was sold.
In contrast to the Russian method of production, Kentucky growers left the chopped cannabis stalks on the ground to become dew retted. Water retting was discouraged because Kentucky farmers believed that fish and livestock that drank from a pond in which hemp had been placed would be poisoned. Then, too, the water smelled like rotten eggs after hemp had been soaking in it, "which was considered unhealthy for slaves and twice as bad for whites."
Not only were the northern manufacturers reluctant to use dew retted hemp, the United States Navy also refused to buy Kentucky hemp despite Congress's efforts to promote the industry.
The secretary of the navy's reply was that "cables and cordage manufactured from it . . . are inferior in colour, strength and durability to those manufactured from imported hemp, and consequently are not safe or proper for use in the navy."
An expert in rope making was quoted as stating, "I would not use cordage made from Kentucky yarn or hemp, even if I could produce it at one half the price of cordage made from Russian."
Fast forward to present times, as of the 2016 harvest season, only two U.S. states other than Kentucky had over 100 acres (40 ha) in hemp production: Colorado and Tennessee.
The first 500-acre commercial crop was planted in Harrison County in 2017, and research permits were issued for over 12,000 acres (4,900 ha) that year.
The 2016 documentary Harvesting Liberty concerns the 21st century Kentucky hemp industry.
As an ode to Kentucky's Golden Age, we encourage you to watch "Harvesting Liberty".
Industrial hemp is a crop that has the potential to lower the environmental impacts of textile production, empower small-scale farmers and create jobs in a wide variety of industries. Two non-profit groups, Fibershed and Growing Warriors, are working to reintroduce industrial hemp into Kentucky—and eventually U.S. agriculture.