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McConnell: Congress close to passing farm bill

December 1, 2018

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told his home state’s most influential farm group on Saturday that federal lawmakers are close to passing a new farm bill that will legalize industrial hemp — a long-banned crop now gaining a foothold in Kentucky.

“I know these have not been great times in agriculture in recent years,” McConnell said in a speech at the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s annual meeting. “But I guarantee you this, we are going to get a farm bill.”

Congressional agriculture committee leaders from both parties have said they reached an agreement in principle but were working to finalize the multibillion-dollar bill’s language and costs. McConnell put himself on the conference committee that worked out the deal.

“I’m not here to spike the ball in the end zone yet,” McConnell later told reporters Saturday. “But I think all the pieces are in place. And one of those pieces is the legalization of industrial hemp.”

The measure would renew the safety net for farmers at a time when the sector has struggled from low commodity prices, tough weather conditions during harvest and trade disruptions amid President Donald Trump’s use of tariffs to try to gain concessions from trading partners.

The biggest stumbling block to an agreement on the farm bill was a dispute over work requirements for food stamp recipients.

The deal worked out by congressional negotiators would scrap new work requirements for some older food stamp recipients — rejecting a plan backed by Trump and House Republicans.

Asked if the Republican president would accept the deal, McConnell told reporters Saturday: “I’m not going to make an announcement for him, but I’m optimistic that he’s satisfied with this agreement that we’ve reached.”

Hemp is deeply rooted in Kentucky’s past, and the bluegrass state has emerged as a national leader in redeveloping a hemp industry.

Hemp legalization would make it a legal agricultural commodity, removing it from the federal list of controlled substances. Growing hemp without a federal permit was banned decades ago because of its classification as a controlled substance related to marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.

The crop was historically used for rope but has many other uses, including clothing and mulch from the fiber; hemp milk and cooking oil from the seeds; and soap and lotions. Other uses include building materials, animal bedding and biofuels. Hemp-derived cannabidiol, or CBD oil, as a health product has become an increasingly large market.

Hemp’s comeback started with the 2014 federal farm bill. McConnell helped push for a provision allowing states to pursue hemp research and development. That allowed the crop to be grown on an experimental basis.

Kentucky farmers planted 6,700 acres (2,710 hectares) of hemp in 2018 — more than twice last year’s production, according to the state’s agriculture department. More than 70 Kentucky processors are turning the plant into products. The value of Kentucky’s 2017 hemp crop was about $17 million.

More than 1,000 Kentucky farmers have applied to grow hemp in 2019 — a 400 percent increase from applications for the 2018 production year, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said Saturday.

“We’ve known that the enthusiasm for the crop continues to grow,” he said. “And with the farm bill on the horizon, we know that this crop is no longer a novelty but is on its way to becoming a commodity.”

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