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MT. VERNON, KY. (MainStreet) Two brothers in Kentucky, both military veterans, are fighting to grow industrial hemp in the country they served. But Mike Lewis, 40, who in December 2012 founded Growing Warriors, an agricultural non-profit for vets, and Fred-Curtis Lewis, 36, are facing opposition from an adversary they're not trained to fight: the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

They do have momentum behind them: even in conservative Rockcastle County, where the predominantly Southern Baptist electorate has outlawed the sale of alcohol, locals and their representatives want to revive the economy by bringing grass to the Bluegrass State.

The hemp provision of the Farm Bill passed by Congress in February co-authored by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and endorsed by the state's Republican Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell permits colleges, universities and state agriculture agencies to grow and experiment on industrial hemp in Kentucky and 13 other states. But on May 13, the DEA obstructed Kentucky's hemp research program by putting a hold on 250 pounds of legal industrial hemp seed imported from Italy once it arrived at a UPS facility in Louisville International Airport. The DEA told the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) it would have to apply for a seed import license. The KDA, in turn, filed a lawsuit the next day to stop the DEA's seizure.

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That snafu put a damper on plans here for Friday, May 16, when Growing Warriors in conjunction with Vote Hemp, the national advocacy group for re-commercializing industrial hemp, had organized a planting of the crop at Wilson Farm. The organizations intended to use the certified industrial hemp seed provided by the KDA as part of a research and development program with Kentucky State University marking the crop's momentous return to Kentucky after decades of federal prohibition. To add a patriotic flourish, given that the first American flags are said to have been made of hemp, Growing Warriors has plans to produce a run of Old Glory from its breed of industrial hemp.

Mike Lewis of Growing Warriors described the DEA's actions as "a direct assault to the family farm" and said the government agency "needs to wake up." Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, called the intrusion a "fool's errand." Patrick Goggin, Vote Hemp's California legal counsel, said the DEA's grouping of industrial hemp and marijuana was like comparing "a St. Bernard and a Chihuahua."

And yet, despite state authorization to grow hemp, federal agents can conduct these raids if the crops are outside the parameters of Section 7606 of the recent Farm Bill, because federal policy fails to distinguish oilseed and fiber varieties of cannabis (industrial hemp) from psychoactive varieties (marijuana). That makes importing even certified hemp seed difficult, despite the fact that industrial hemp has only a modest amount of the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in marijuana.

The Department of Justice, which is handling industrial hemp inquiries for the DEA, believes the DEA acted properly.

"The issue at hand has been the importation of hemp seeds which the law/Farm Bill as written does not explicitly authorize," Ellen Canale, DOJ public affairs specialist, told MainStreet in an email. "The DEA has been in constant communication with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and has worked with the state at every step so the state could lawfully obtain the seeds."

In a meeting on May 15 with DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart, Sen. McConnell lashed out.

"I again expressed my frustration that the DEA is using its finite resources to stymie plainly lawful hemp pilot projects," he said.

Instead of an inaugural industrial hemp seed planting at Wilson Farm that Friday, the veterans who gathered for Growing Warriors ceremonially planted toasted hemp seed, a snack food product.

Homegrown By Heroes

A selling point for the reinvigorated industrial hemp advocacy in Kentucky hinges on who's growing it: the hemp will be sown by war veterans who have partnered with Growing Warriors to learn agriculture and farming skills and work toward creating local community systems of food cultivation and distribution.

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Lewis, originally from Maine, served in the Third United States Infantry in Washington, D.C. (the "Old Guard"), where from 1992 to 1996 he worked in Arlington National Cemetery and helped with military funerals. He saw too closely the grim consequences of war, and when his brother, Fred-Curtis Lewis, did a tour of Iraq and two of Afghanistan with Special Forces, he further understood veterans' connection to the land.

"These veterans, my brother and countless others, kind of put everything on the line for us here on this soil," Lewis said. "There has to be something visceral about being over there and fighting for us...and then coming home. You have to relate to what you're fighting for. And I think for a lot of us, we've lost that sort of connection to what does it mean to be an American. And so it's important to dive back into the historic rural roots of America and put our hands in the dirt and work together. And build something."

That's particularly important for this demographic, because once discharged, vets who lack the structure of the military can be aimless. All told, 1 million vets and active duty military personnel are part of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps. Cultivating crops, including industrial hemp, with Growing Warriors could solve the problem: by providing food and employment.

Over the past year, Growing Warriors has been funded by Grow Appalachia and by billionaire John Paul Dejoria through his Peace Love & Happiness Foundation. In 2013, Growing Warriors assisted 45 veterans and their families in producing 20,000 pounds of organic produce. The movement jibes well with two initiatives from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture: Kentucky Proud Jobs for Vets, which matches vets with agribusiness work opportunities, and Homegrown by Heroes, a branding push that gives farmer vets a label to slap onto their agricultural products at the point of sale.

Armed with slogans like "Hempin' Ain't Easy" and "Kale Yes," former military personnel are also ideal candidates to work the field.

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"Veterans are task oriented and mission driven," said Fred-Curtis Lewis. "We see a problem and naturally want to fix it...The matching of military veterans who have fought for freedom with the process of bringing the most patriotic crop our country can grow back is a recipe for success."

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He also started Healing Grounds, an organization that focuses on agriculture as therapy for veterans to pair with the employment opportunities of Growing Warriors.

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Hank Barbe, 40, a veteran who served from 1992 to 2004, ended his run as a flight medic in Iraq after suffering severe injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. After teaching special education and then playing in his band Three Beards, the divorced father of two faced hard times and lived with a caretaker for close to two years.

Having befriended Fred-Curtis Lewis in a beard club in North Carolina, Barbe was convinced to move a month ago to Kentucky, where he's been involved in the agricultural initiatives feeding chickens, chasing goats, mowing lawns, building strawberry pyramids and gearing up to plant hemp.

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"You're not going to take someone and make them different and cured and better, but with me at least, it helps me get my mind off of stuff," Barbe said. "Instead of focusing on everything that's going wrong or has gone wrong, I'm focusing on, 'I've got work I've got to get it done.'"

Hemp's Robust Economic Potential

Grown for its versatile fiber and oilseed, which can be used to make rope, paper, bio-fuels, cosmetics, food, body care products, textiles, plastic composites and more, hemp was a major crop in Kentucky as recently as the 1950s even despite the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which many view as a veiled attempt by William Randolph Hearst (who had major timber holdings) and the DuPont family (which had significant nylon interests) to shut down competition from hemp. The crop's run in Kentucky ended when it was banned in 1970 as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act.

Rockcastle County's embrace of the crop rests in its patriotic roots. Historically, by decree of King James I in 1619, The Virginia Company made every colonist grow 100 hemp plants for export, and taxes could be paid with hemp fiber. The Puritans began cultivating the hemp by 1645, and founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson also grew it. The Madison Hemp and Flax Spinning Company in Kentucky was incorporated in 1806, and in 1808, the state's famed Henry Clay guided a charter for the company to passage.

From a broader business perspective, the first Levi's jeans are said to have been made with hemp, and Henry Ford built a car whose body was produced from hemp-based plastic. The USDA even produced a film called "Hemp For Victory" to encourage U.S. farmers to grow hemp to support the World War II effort: they grew a million acres of hemp as a result of that initiative.

In another indication of Kentucky's fervid hemp activism, actor Woody Harrelson was arrested in the state in 1996 for planting four hemp seeds to protest that the law did not distinguish between marijuana and industrial hemp.

Here in what is essentially the western notch of Appalachia, the Rockcastle County community could benefit from the economic boost the hemp industry could provide. 19% of Kentucky residents live in poverty, making it the fifth poorest state in the U.S.

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"I think that we're at a point where rural America has decided that anything that can happen is most likely positive," said Lewis, from Growing Warriors. "We're still losing jobs. Our kids in this county are graduating high school and if they do come back, they're commuting out of town for jobs. Our Main Street the buildings are falling down... I think the point is something has to happen."

That something could be hemp.

"Hemp is not the answer," he said, "but it certainly is a catalyst and it certainly is one of the pieces to this puzzle."

Indeed, hemp has huge potential to create jobs and economic development in Kentucky beyond opportunities for veterans. "More than 25,000 different products can be made from industrial hemp once commercial farming is allowed, and this can be a huge benefit for Kentucky farmers and business," said Vote Hemp's Steenstra.

That's all the more necessary given the challenges that have beset those who make their living off the land. The total value of agricultural products sold in Kentucky (minus equine figures) increased 26.2% from 2007 to 2012, according to Kentucky's 2012 Census of Agriculture, but input costs for Kentucky farmers rose at a far greater rate during that span: livestock feed costs rose 48%; the costs of fertilizer, lime and soil conditioners rose 53%; fuel costs rose 31.7%; cost of chemicals rose 77.4%; utility expenses rose 36.7%; and the costs of cash rent for land, buildings, and grazing fees doubled.

The county has enacted an occupational tax, of which 40% is dedicated to economic development. Holly Hopkins, executive director of the Rockcastle County Industrial Development Authority, says the focus is on increasing not only employment opportunities but also well-paying ones. The mostly agricultural county has most of its opportunities in the so-called "tool and die" manufacturing sector. Anchor Packaging, a company that turns resin into deli containers, is a prominent employer here. So too is Plastisud, which bought Integrity Mold & Die Ltd., a Mt. Vernon manufacturer of the metal casts used to make soda bottle caps, for instance.

Hopkins says she is positioning hemp as a lure for other companies to come to the county. One that manufactures the resin products being tested by Ford and John Deere is seriously considering this prospect; it would bring 400 jobs to the county (compared to Plastisud's 25 positions).

Lewis of Growing Warriors says he is focused on manufacturers that make injection molding plastics out of industrial hemp; here, an hour's drive from Lexington, would be a sustainable fiber production hub with hemp leading the way.

The U.S. imported $11.5 million worth of legal hemp products in 2011, up from $1.4 million in 2000. If the country grew its own industrial hemp, U.S. companies could rely on domestic supply and export the excess.

Moving Forward

Steenstra of Vote Hemp blames the DEA for continued poor judgment in too closely associating industrial hemp with marijuana.

"Stigma is not the problem, it's an out of control DEA that refuses to follow the law and clear Congressional intent," he said. "Congress passed this amendment and the authors who we worked carefully with intended that DEA would no longer have authority to regulate hemp or treat it as a drug. By their actions in Kentucky, DEA has made it clear that they don't respect Congress or the law."

Steenstra applauded Kentucky Department of Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and Sen. McConnell in rejecting what he called the "DEA's twisted logic."

On May 19, the KDA applied and was registered as an importer with the DEA that same day. Then on May 22, the KDA applied for an import permit that would authorize the release of the hemp seeds in question. That permit was also issued by the DEA that same day.

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"I am glad the needless delay appears to be over and the program we have worked on for more than a year is about to become a reality," said Sen. Rand Paul in a statement. "I have been working with Attorney General Holder on Kentucky's program for months, and I am pleased that his department has helped us move the program forward as Congress intended."

Lewis, of Growing Warriors, said he is picking up the industrial hemp seeds today and will plant them in the soil with fellow veterans this week.

--Written by Ross Kenneth Urken for MainStreet