May 28, 2014 3:27 PM
Hemp has turned legitimate in Kentucky, where researchers are starting to plant test plots that will help gauge the economic potency of the non-intoxicating plant banned for decades due to its family ties to marijuana.
As part of the comeback, University of Kentucky agronomy researchers planted a small hemp plot Tuesday in central Kentucky. The seeds used were part of a shipment from Italy that was released last week after a legal standoff between Kentucky's Agriculture Department and the federal government.
Elsewhere, a test hemp plot affiliated with Murray State University in western Kentucky has also been planted, using another seed source, state agriculture officials said.
Statewide, about 13 acres of hemp plots are expected to be planted in coming days, said Holly Harris VonLuehrte, chief of staff to state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. The state Agriculture Department is looking into possibly arranging more hemp seed shipments into the state, she said.
Comer, a Republican, said the test program will "help us recover much of the knowledge about industrial hemp product that has been lost since hemp was last grown in Kentucky." He said the research "will bring industrial hemp back to Kentucky and with it new jobs and new farm income."
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, Cannabis sativa, but hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
Hemp's comeback gained a foothold with the new federal farm bill, which allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp pilot projects for research in states such as Kentucky that allow hemp growing.
Kentucky has been at the forefront of efforts to revive the versatile crop, and the legal fight was closely watched in other states.
Kentucky's pilot hemp projects for research were put on hold during a big stretch of the planting season after the Italian seed shipment was stopped by U.S. customs officials in Louisville earlier this month. The state Agriculture Department then sued the federal government to free the seeds. Defendants included the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The seeds were released after federal drug officials approved a permit last Thursday that ended the legal standoff. The breakthrough occurred after attorneys for the Agriculture Department and federal government met twice with a federal judge.
Harvesting of the state's first legal hemp crop in decades will occur in October. University of Kentucky researchers will help determine which hemp varieties are best suited for Kentucky. They will measure yields for fiber and seeds and study potential weed, disease and insect problems.
Six universities in the state will be involved in various hemp research projects.
Gov. Steve Beshear signed regulations drafted by Kentucky's Agriculture Department that set guidelines for the research projects.
In Rockcastle County, a group hopes to plant 2 acres of hemp on Thursday, weather permitting, for another research project. Plans are to convert part of the crop into fabric used to make U.S. flags, said Michael Lewis, a farmer helping lead the project. The crop also will be turned into textiles, he said.
Hemp has historically been 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.
"There's a lot of potential, but the expectations need to be managed," Lewis said. "This isn't something that we're going to turn the switch and be going next year. But certainly the potential is exciting."
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