What’s Old is New Again
Today we look at the Commonwealth of Kentucky. “What’s a commonwealth and how is it different from a state?” you ask. According to Merriam-Webster, there really is no difference between it and a state except that it was the preferred word adopted by the authors of its constitution. It is believed the word was chosen by its authors because of “some anti-monarchial sentiment in using the word commonwealth.” Further, it is one of only four commonwealths in the United States, the others being Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Now you are ready to dominate your Trivia Tuesday group.
Being a commonwealth is not the only thing that makes Kentucky unique, particularly when it comes to its agricultural footprint. For example, when it comes to hemp production, you might call Kentucky a hotbed of sorts (pun intended). Because hemp is still emerging from the federal regulatory shadows as a result of the 2014 and 2018 farm bills, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not yet have reliable data when it comes to hemp acreage (outdoor) or square footage (indoor). But according to Hemp Industry Daily Kentucky is a national leader in licensed hemp, with over 32,000 acres and 4.6 million square feet in 2020. This is hardly surprising since Kentucky’s first hemp crop was grown in 1775 was grown in 1775. The state, er, commonwealth, was a significant producer of hemp–along with Missouri and Illinois–prior to and during the American Revolution due to its importance to rope and sailcloth for war efforts. It is merely following tradition by continuing to be a leader in hemp production.
Beyond hemp, Kentucky is home to many different commodities–from field crops like corn ($1 billion in 2019) and soybeans ($700 million) to specialty crops such as maple syrup (1,500 gallons/$61,000 in 2017) and berries ($2.6 million in 2017). In 2019, it was second nationally (behind North Carolina) in the production of tobacco valued at $268 million. All told, Kentucky sold more than $5.7 billion worth of agricultural goods in 2017, according to the Ag Census.
To support all this agricultural activity, the commonwealth leans on the University of Kentucky (UK) and Kentucky State University (KSU) for much of its agricultural research. Founded in 1865, UK is the oldest land-grant university in the state, ahead of the historically black KSU that was founded in 1886. For the purposes of this post, we will focus mostly on UK’s agricultural research efforts and activities.
Considering the smaller footprint of tobacco production–Kentucky’s total tobacco acres harvested in 2019 (57,400) was 43 percent of what it was in 2000 (132,700), similar to national trends–U.S. tobacco breeding programs are not nearly what they used to be. However, UK is still home to tobacco breeding efforts, which makes sense considering the value of the crop to the state’s economy. Other crops focused on by UK’s Crop Breeding and Genetics program include sorghum, fescue for grazing, and wheat. Interestingly, despite the significant recent growth in industrial hemp in the marketplace, government, and academia, UK is not yet focusing on variety development efforts within hemp, at least in the traditional sense. It is our guess that as the industry matures, this will likely change.