In the summer of 2012, then-Agriculture Commissioner James Comer decided to go all-in on industrial hemp and advocate for a revival of the crop for Kentucky’s farmers.
Allies warned him that it could be political suicide for a conservative Republican to promote a plant so closely related to marijuana. Comer was 39 years old and had already served more than a decade in the state House of Representatives. Why risk a promising political future, they said, on a crop that nobody had grown, legally at least, in decades.
But Comer felt Kentuckian’s understood that hemp, which contains little of the psychoactive compound that makes marijuana illegal, could be used for a wide range of legal consumer products. And he believed they knew of hemp’s role as a cash crop alongside tobacco for much of the commonwealth’s early history.
“People in Kentucky are smarter than some people give us credit for,” says Comer. “We have a high hemp IQ in Kentucky and I think across America people are now learning the difference between hemp and marijuana.”
Comer’s crusade helped lead to federal approval of an industrial hemp pilot program in 2014, and full legalization for the crop in 2018. Now a second-term U.S. representative for Kentucky’s 1st district, Comer talked about the future of hemp and other policy issues on KET’s Congressional Update.
What’s Next for Hemp
With hemp fields and processing facilities popping up around the state, Comer sees a bright future for the plant, perhaps even becoming the state’s new cash crop.
“Hemp’s going to be a major player in Kentucky for a long time,” he says, “but there are a few potential perils I see in the short term.”
First, the congressman says the state needs more companies interested in processing hemp fibers, not just those that extract cannabidiol (CBD) oil from the plant. Comer, who uses CBD oil for joint pain, says the state already has a sufficient number of oil processors. But he contends the commonwealth is missing out on the market for hemp fibers, which can be used to products as diverse as flooring to car interiors to animal feed.
“If I were in Kentucky and not in Washington, I would be using the Economic Development Cabinet and the Department of Agriculture to aggressively recruit these fiber processors,” says the Congressman.
Most of the credible hemp processors are locating near Lexington and Murray, according to Comer. He says that’s because those companies want access to hemp research underway at the University of Kentucky and Murray State University. As new processors come on line, Comer hopes those businesses will locate in other areas of the state to give farmers easier access to that market.
The regulatory environment still poses some challenges to the nascent hemp industry. Comer says he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are working to keep the federal Food and Drug Administration from over-regulating CBD oil. The congressman is also cosponsoring bipartisan legislation called the SAFE Banking Act, which would give hemp and legitimate marijuana producers (in states where it is legal) access to financial services like bank accounts and credit card transactions.
Where’s the Beef?
Another farm-related issue that’s a priority for Comer is proper labeling of meat alternatives not made from animals. He says consumers need to know what they’re getting when they purchase products like Beyond Meat or Impossible Burgers.
“It’s fine for companies to develop new products, but I think you should label it,” says the congressman. “I don’t want people thinking they’re buying beef and it’s a plant-based, synthetic type of beef that’s been created in a laboratory.”
As a cattle farmer himself, Comer says he prefers real beef, and says he has no plans to buy a Beyond Meat burger. He also defends the beef and dairy industries against claims that cattle are a major contributor to environmental problems. Cows release methane, which is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Raising cattle to slaughter also requires enormous amounts of water. That’s led environmental and animal rights activists to call for people to eat less meat in favor of a plant-based diet.
“I’m not buying that,” says Comer. “I think beef is an excellent form of protein and I want to see our food produced in the United States, produced by family farmers. I want it safe and inspected by USDA processors, free of unnecessary medications and hormones.”
The congressman is also dubious of the broader causes and implications of climate change.
“If you study the history of the world… the climate’s always fluctuated,” says Comer. “I don’t know that it’s man made. I don’t know that it’s not.”
Comer dismisses Democratic politicians pushing a Green New Deal of reforms to address climate change by saying, “I don’t think their elevator goes to the top floor.” But he admits that consumer demand for sustainable products is on the increase. He contends the marketplace should determine how much of a green economy the nation should embrace.
“The private sector is doing a good job of becoming greener,” says the congressman. “I don’t think we need these radical Democrats and their unnecessary burdensome regulations.”
One reason Comer says he’s not terribly concerned about environmental issues is because of scientific and technological advances that he says have enabled farmers and even the coal industry to become greener and more efficient.
“The coal industry has done a tremendous job to clean up the output with the scrubbers on all the coal plants,” says Comer. “Coal is a necessary form of our energy policy as we move forward.”
Thoughts of Home
After a little more than two-and-a-half years in Washington, Comer says he’s finally adapted to how Congress works. He says that’s enabling him to accomplish good things for his constituents. The Republican admits it is hard to make progress, but he says that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“I think our founding fathers, when they created the constitution, they wanted the wheels to move slow,” says Comer. “They wanted there to be a lot of thought into getting legislation… Despite the frustration that… every American has with Congress, I think it’s a system that works.”
Then there’s the partisan nature of the work. He contends the members who create the most division are the ones who get on television, whereas the most effective members work behind the scenes out of the glare of TV lights.
“I tell people the biggest problem with Congress is there’s too many congressmen,” he jokes.
All that has left Comer feeling wistful about his time in Frankfort as a state lawmaker and agriculture commissioner. He says he thinks he’s “better wired” for the state capitol than the nation’s capitol.
Being in the federal delegation hasn’t stopped Comer from commenting on state issues. He has criticized the deal that gave Braidy Industries $15 million dollars in state funding to help build an aluminum rolling mill in northeastern Kentucky.
“I don’t think that our tax dollars should be sent to Frankfort and then the politicians in Frankfort dictate the winners and losers,” says Comer. “That’s called crony capitalism… That’s never been done before and it doesn’t ever need to happen again.”
The congressman says he’s thrilled that Braidy wants to locate in the commonwealth, but he says the state can’t afford to give tax deals to private companies when there are pension debts and Medicaid bills to pay. He also fears it gives the state a reputation among other companies who may seek public funds to build a private enterprise here.
“If you’re a true conservative, if you’re pro-business, if you’re the chamber of commerce, you shouldn’t support something like that,” he says.
Comer also says the state has an infrastructure crisis that is hurting economic development and fostering depopulation of rural communities. He advocates for public-private partnerships to repair existing roads and bridges, build new structures, and ensure statewide installation of broadband internet service. He also says it’s time to eliminate corruption in how public-works projects are bid and managed.
Given his affection for state government, some wondered if Comer might challenge incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin in this year’s gubernatorial race. Bevin defeated Comer by 83 votes in the GOP primary for governor in 2015. But the congressman says his place is in Washington.
“I’m very blessed to be where I am now,” says Comer. “I appreciate this opportunity and plan on staying here for a while.”