Kentucky and Hemp, a centuries long relationship to its roots

Kentucky and Hemp, a centuries long relationship to its roots

Meet Cornbread Hemp, the Kentucky business raking in $20M by growing Cannabis.

Two Kentucky boys, 15 acres of farmland, and a homegrown hemp company are hoping to grow the Commonwealth into a new agricultural era by returning the state to its historical roots. 

Jim Higdon and Eric Zipperle co-founded Cornbread Hemp, a full-spectrum CBD business, in 2019, just months after Congress legalized CBD — an active ingredient in cannabis that does not cause a "high" — outright under the 2018 Farm Bill.

While CBD and other hemp-derived products such as delta-8 and delta-9 are legal in Kentucky, marijuana remains illegal. In March, Gov. Andy Beshear signed a bill to legalize medical marijuana, a program that is expected to begin in 2025.

Since 2019, the duo has capitalized on the cush Kentucky agricultural environment, growing certified organic cannabis plants to produce high-quality hemp for their products ranging from CBD oils and pet products to their newly released CBD sleep gummies. CBD products are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but many studies show these products can help with pain, inflammation, and sleep.

This year, Cornbread Hemp is expected to rack in $20 million in sales from its products which are fueled by hemp grown across 15 acres in Lexington at former Lexington Mayor and Congressman Scotty Baesler’s farm and at a farm in Higdon’s hometown of Marion County. 

Higdon and Zipperle aren’t the only ones cashing in on the Commonwealth’s original cash crops. In 2022, Kentucky saw more than $43 million in gross sales of hemp-related products, Kentucky Department of Agriculture Commissioner Dr. Ryan Quarles said. 

“It shows that Kentucky remains today as one of the leading states in the country when it comes to hemp,” Quarles said.  

Kentucky’s history with hemp

It should be no surprise that Kentucky is able to produce high-quality hemp given the state's nearly 250-year history with the plant. Despite national controversy over growing cannabis — which can either become hemp, which contains 0.3% or less THC, or marijuana if the THC content that causes a "high" is greater than 0.3% — Kentucky has long been a leader in growing the crop. 

“These plants look and smell identical to what a full-strength cannabis plant would look like,” Higdon said while walking through the hemp fields at the Lexington farm. “It looks indistinguishable from a full-strength cannabis plant because it is, in fact, a cannabis plant. It's just a cannabis plant that Congress has determined to call hemp because the THC level is below 0.3%.” 

The first documented account of hemp being grown in Kentucky dates back to 1775 in Boyle County, predating the Declaration of Independence and Kentucky statehood. Throughout the Antebellum period, Kentucky hemp relied on the exploitative labor of enslaved people, Higdon said. 

“It was an immediate cash crop and in fact, Kentucky led the nation in production throughout both the 1700s and 1800s,” Quarles said.  

In the early days of hemp growing in Kentucky, the product was mainly used for rope, textiles, and canvasses, and much of the Kentucky hemp was exported to other countries.

Henry Clay, an early and famed Kentucky politician, helped connect the local hemp industry with the world through the U.S. Navy and made it a viable growing industry domestically. 

“Kentucky's native son [Clay] actually ... advocated for tariffs to be put on imported hemp so that would help domestic sales of American-grown hemp, otherwise known as Kentucky hemp,” Quarles said. 

But the hemp boom in Kentucky wouldn’t last. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 made hemp illegal as a recreational drug, disrupting the production and commercialization of the plant. Then during World War II, the federal government created the “Hemp for Victory” effort, which once again allowed Kentucky hemp to flourish, however, this too was short-lived, Higdon said. 

By 1946, hemp was once again banned and remained illegal until the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, which allowed for research plots of hemp to be grown. 

“Kentucky became a leader, we did not hesitate at all to establish research plots both on farms, but also the universities,” Quarles told the Courier Journal. “We became, we believe the first state to legally plant seeds in America for research purposes in 2014 and had 33 acres total.” 

Quarles, who was a member of the General Assembly in 2013, said he remembers the Kentucky legislature preparing for the reintroduction of hemp as a legal agricultural product. The General Assembly passed laws in 2013 to “set the framework for legal hemp to be grown in Kentucky again,” Quarles said.  

This proactive creation of hemp laws was important and unique to Kentucky. 

“Number one wanting the economic advantages of a crop that had been dormant for close to three generations … number two is that there's no better state than Kentucky to benefit from this crop because of our historic dominance growing it,” Quarles said. 

And nearly a decade after those early steps to prepare the Commonwealth for the return of hemp, regular Kentuckians like Higdon and Zipperle have been able to draw Kentucky hemp back into the national spotlight.

What is Cornbread Hemp? 

In 2012, Higdon, who was a journalist at the time, published a book called “The Cornbread Mafia,” which recounted the story of Marion County in the 1980s when 70 men were arrested, and 200 tons of cannabis were seized. Federal prosecutors held a press conference where they dubbed the group of men “The Cornbread Mafia.” 

“That press conference was really traumatic to my community and brought a lot of unnecessary notoriety to my community,” Higdon said. “By naming our brand ‘Cornbread,’ we're paying homage to those guys, and taking a pejorative against our community and turning that into a positive.” 

In keeping with that notion, the Cornbread Hemp founders have tried to maintain the highest quality and purity of their hemp. Higdon and Zipperle control and oversee every step of production from planting and growing, harvesting, which ends on Nov. 3, CBD extracting through production, and finally creating, packaging, and shipping the products.

And it doesn’t stop there.

The company admits the way they farm as a certified organic operation is more expensive, but they believe it creates a stronger CBD product in the end. Rather than use pesticides and other chemicals to assist with growing, Cornbread Hemp relies on crop rotation, meaning the Lexington farm won’t be eligible to grow hemp next year, and natural insect repellents such as Goldenrod flowers and other distraction crops along with praying mantises and ladybugs are released into the field. 

Zipperle said another thing that sets the Kentucky-grown brand apart from other national competitors in the CBD market is that rather than use the whole cannabis plant — flower, leaves and stems — Cornbread Hemp relies solely on the flower to extract CBD oil since the leaves and stems don’t produce CBD. 

“The weight of doing this right from Kentucky falls on our shoulders,” Higdon said. 

But for the Kentucky natives, it’s a labor of love, noting the flower-only extraction process takes hours of manual labor by employees on their 40-person payroll. 

“We're really proud of that, it's another reason why the product comes out as clean as it does,” Zipperle said. “It's important to us carrying the ‘Cornbread’ name to do things at the extraordinary level too because we're representing excellence in cannabis from Kentucky.” 

What is the future of hemp in the Commonwealth? 

Higdon said that Kentucky is geographically an ideal place to grow hemp, noting the state sits on the 37th parallel, which is in line with the Hindu Kush mountains in Asia, where much of cannabis originated; ultimately creating a familiar growing pattern for the plants. 

“Kentucky is naturally a fantastic agricultural environment,” Higdon said. “It's what makes our bourbon great and our racehorses fast.” 

As of September, there have been 1,400 acres of hemp planted across Kentucky, according to data provided by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.  

The 2018 Farm Bill expired on Sept. 30. Now the hemp industry is waiting to see what changes and regulations may be added in the 2023 Farm Bill, which has yet to be resolved and passed by Congress.

Cornbread Hemp, which has 20,000 monthly subscribers who automatically get products sent to their homes, believes hemp is the future of Kentucky agriculture cash crops, regaining its place in state history. 

“Tobacco is the past,” Higdon said. “And if we can prove through our business that hemp has a market nationally … then we can begin to replace tobacco with hemp.” 

For Quarles, whose family grew hemp in the "Hemp for Victory” efforts, he warns against the quick replacement of tobacco with hemp. 

“We caution all of our hemp growers and processors to make sure they evaluate the risks of what is still an experimental crop for many," Quarles said. “But for companies like [Cornbread Hemp], there could be big potential ahead.” 

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