As the number of coal mining jobs continues to decline in central Appalachia, hemp is getting a lot of attention as one way to diversify eastern Kentucky’s post-coal economy. But the region’s burgeoning hemp industry is also riddled with uncertainty. The lack of land suitable for growing hemp, and its association with marijuana pose some significant challenges.
Neil Spears is a resident of Pikeville, Kentucky. He’s one of the pioneers in Kentucky’s burgeoning hemp industry.
On a hot Friday afternoon in September, Spears drives off a paved road, through a creek, and up to his friend’s hemp farm near Pikeville. It’s nestled among the ancient mountains of Appalachia.
“I used to tell everyone in Colorado, they’d talk about the mountains in Colorado, well, you all got majestic mountains, we’ve got beautiful mountains. That’s two different things. Awe-inspiring and beautiful are two different things,” he says.
Spears has a goatee and hair that brushes his shoulders. He walks through the five-acre plot in his beat-up straw hat, watching out for rattlesnakes.
It’s not easy to see the hemp plants. Most of