LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Kentucky's hemp production is taking deeper root as experimental projects expand in the second year of testing its potential as a cash crop.
Spring planting season is expected to include at least several hundred acres of industrial hemp, Adam Watson, the state Agriculture Department's hemp program coordinator, said Monday. Statewide hemp plantings totaled about three dozen acres last year, he said.
More than 100 farmers and processors —mostly growers — are expected to participate in the next round of pilot projects, he said.
Last year's tiny production turned into the state's first legal hemp crop in generations. The crop once thrived in Kentucky, but growing hemp without a federal permit was banned in 1970 due to its classification as a controlled substance related to marijuana.
Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp has a negligible amount of the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
Hemp got a limited reprieve with the federal farm bill, which allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp projects for research and development in states such as Kentucky that allow hemp growing. Hemp is prized for its oils, seeds and fiber. The crop was historically used for rope but has many other uses: clothing and mulch from the fiber; hemp milk and cooking oil from the seeds; and soap and lotions.
More than 320 applicants sought permission to join pilot projects this year in Kentucky, Watson said.
The number of participants was narrowed in hopes farmers would have markets for their hemp, Watson said.
"It takes money to grow it and we don't want to leave them with a great crop and nothing to do with it," he said.
Researchers from several universities will also have a hand in test plots, he said.
This year's projects will build on knowledge gained last year from a crop being reintroduced from scratch, he said.
Kentucky has been at the forefront of national efforts to revive hemp production, and its projected hemp acreage this year solidifies that role, said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a group advocating for the plant's legal cultivation.
"I think Kentucky will likely be the place where the most acreage is planted this year," he said.
He predicted hemp will be planted in a half-dozen states or more this year.
Kentucky's hemp crop will sprout from seeds imported from Canada, Europe and Asia.
Last year, plantings were delayed when Italian seeds were detained by U.S. customs officials in Louisville. The state's Agriculture Department sued the federal government, and the seeds were released after federal drug officials approved a permit.
Kentucky agriculture officials don't expect any such obstacles this year, Watson said.
A majority of the state's hemp crop will be processed in Kentucky, he said.
Kentucky farmer Michael Lewis said he plans to grow about 15 acres of hemp this year, and is taking the next step by getting into processing.
He said he will work with other farmers, converting their hemp and his into processed material for manufacturers.
Lewis said he expects "some hiccups" as hemp production and processing get off the ground, but he sees potential.
One key, he said, is to guarantee enough production to make it worthwhile for processors or manufacturers.
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