LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — For a century, G.F. Vaughan Tobacco Inc. has been in the business of processing tobacco — a once-lucrative operation whose heyday is long past, like the rest of Kentucky's burley sector. So the company is looking for something new.
One possibility is industrial hemp, an outlawed cousin of marijuana that once was a staple of Kentucky agriculture. The long-dormant hemp crop with a multitude of uses could make a comeback if some prominent Kentucky politicians get their way.
Wanting to be ready if production is legalized, Vaughan executives are planning a trip to Canada for an inside look at how the tall, leafy plant is processed north of the border, where hemp has taken root as a cash crop.
The question on their minds is whether Vaughan's equipment could be adapted to process hemp.
"Our tobacco business is not what it used to be and we've got a lot of capacity here that's unused," said Conrad Whitaker, president of the Lexington-based Vaughan. "We'd like to have a product that we could fill in with."
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer sees untapped potential for hemp — from farm to factory.
Comer, a farmer himself, says that making industrial hemp legal will be his top priority in the 2013 General Assembly. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a fellow Republican, is a leading supporter of federal legislation to remove restrictions on hemp cultivation.
"I sincerely believe that industrial hemp can be a viable option for our farmers for many generations to come," Comer said last week as he reconvened an 18-member state hemp commission that hadn't met in a decade.
"I also believe that we can create badly needed jobs in the manufacturing sector with this crop."
Seed suppliers could gain a new market. So could businesses that clean grain or crush seeds to extract their oils. Horse bedding dealers could offer a new product made from hemp. Farm implement dealers could benefit, as well as other agribusinesses, hemp advocates said.
"Hemp is no different than any other crop," said Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the Hemp Industries Association. "Anybody who profits from agriculture now ... could have a small to large hand in this, depending on what types of products or services they are selling."
Louisville-based Caudill Seed Company is eager to get its foot in the door of the hemp market if it is legalized, said Dan Caudill, chief operating officer.
Caudill said the company would work with farmers to grow the hemp and is even considering pressing seeds to produce hemp seed oil.
"I have read that that hemp market in the United States could exceed several hundred million dollars in sales." Caudill said in an email. "So if hemp is legalized, our company, which currently operates three seed processing plants, would work hard with the farmers to capture as much of this market that is supplied by importers with our new domestic sources."
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