LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Tobacco production has waned in Wolfe County, so its agricultural extension agent checked out hemp research plots Thursday to see if the crop that's just starting a comeback could grow into a substitute for farmers in his region of the Appalachian foothills.
Daniel Wilson, the ag agent, liked what he saw while inspecting stands of hemp — marijuana's non-intoxicating cousin — at a University of Kentucky research farm. Some hemp plants towered eight to 10 feet tall.
Hemp could become an option on the acreages where tobacco once dominated in his hilly county, he said. Wolfe County used to produce up to 3 million pounds of burley tobacco during the crop's heyday. The county's production is now 100,000 to 150,000 pounds yearly, he said.
"With tobacco out, it's got good potential to replace some of that," Wilson said. "Anything that can help offset some of the income for some of these farmers, I'm for it."
Hemp is prized for 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 soaps and lotions.
The challenge isn't growing hemp, which thrived in Kentucky's soil and climate until getting caught up in the government's fight against marijuana. The question is whether farmers can find reliable markets.
Wilson was among about 250 people touring the hemp plots. Participants included farmers, processors and ag extension agents. Some people took photos of a crop that remains a novelty.
UK agronomist David Williams said hemp's long-term viability will hinge on whether it can fetch a strong enough profit for farmers. Without that assurance, farmers will raise other crops.
"We do have strong evidence that suggests it will be at least in that neighborhood with the current commodities as far as profit for farmers goes," he said. "All that's determined by the consumer."
Hemp products sold in the U.S. last year had a total retail value of at least $620 million, according to the Hemp Industries Association. The crop is grown in many other countries around the world.
Growing hemp in the U.S. 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.
For now, growing hemp is strictly limited. The federal farm bill restricts hemp production to research projects designated by agriculture departments in states that allow the crop to be grown.
Twenty-six states have removed barriers to hemp production, according to Vote Hemp, a group that advocates for the plant's legal cultivation.
Kentucky has been at the forefront of efforts to revive the crop.
Hemp production will reach nearly 800 acres this year in Kentucky, said Adam Watson, the state Agriculture Department's hemp program coordinator. Output would have been higher except for the slow arrival of imported hemp seeds and the wet spring that slowed planting.
Last year's hemp crop, the first legal one in decades, totaled about 33 acres in Kentucky.
Several Kentucky universities are involved in hemp research this year.
Hemp's reintroduction was championed in Kentucky by state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.
Comer, a Republican, leaves office in a few months, but the two candidates vying for his job in the November election say they support hemp's development.
Hemp processors visiting the research farm Thursday included Atalo Holdings and Sunstrand.
Sunstrand, based in Louisville, processes plants including hemp for eventual conversion into composite materials for use by the auto industry, construction and other sectors.
Sunstrand CEO Trey Riddle said there's momentum behind hemp, but plenty more work is needed to build market demand for the crop.
"There's no guarantee that this is all going to work out," he said. "But we're willing to take a little bit of a gamble and invest some money and time into it."