Test hemp crop grows with arrival of more seeds

Associated PressJuly 14, 2014 

— Another shipment of imported seeds is bolstering Kentucky's experimental hemp crop, this time with none of the drama that surrounded an earlier shipment that set off a legal fight between the state's Agriculture Department and the federal government.

Nearly 950 pounds of Canadian hemp seeds cleared customs recently without a hitch, and the seeds were planted last week to give researchers and farmers more test plots, state Agriculture Department officials said Monday.

"We've got a really good process with the DEA now," said Holly Harris VonLuehrte, chief of staff to state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

Comer, a Republican who is considering a run for governor next year, was at the forefront of efforts to reintroduce the non-intoxicating plant that was banned for decades due to its family ties to marijuana.

Comer's department sued the federal government in May to free a 286-pound shipment of seeds from Italy that was detained by U.S. customs officials in Louisville. The seeds eventually were released and planted in late May as part of pilot projects in the Bluegrass state.

"We're probably to the point now where we may end up just dismissing our lawsuit because we've gotten everything we want," VonLuehrte said.

The Canadian hemp seeds recently planted in Kentucky soil have a lot of catching up to do.

Some plots planted in late spring now have leafy hemp plants towering six feet high or taller, said Adam Watson, the state ag department's industrial hemp program coordinator. Some plants will reach 12 feet tall or higher before the fall harvest.

The experimental plots are spread out in western, central and eastern Kentucky.

"The crop is doing great in all three regions," VonLuehrte said.

The ag department is still awaiting a small seed shipment from Australia, Watson said.

VonLuehrte predicted that buyers will be found for all the available hemp from this year's minuscule crop. 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.

In Rockcastle County, a 2-acre crop has sprouted to about 8 feet tall, said Michael Lewis, a farmer helping lead that project.

Part of that crop will be used in making some U.S. flags, he said. Another goal is to develop a clothing line from hemp, he said.

The experimental project has drawn visits from area farmers and local political and business leaders curious about the crop's potential, he said.

"I think people are starting to really understand what this is and what it's about," Lewis said. "I'm a little shocked at how far we've come with it this quickly. It's a good sign that we're heading in the right direction."

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.

The new federal farm bill allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp pilot projects for research. Several Kentucky universities are involved in the research.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky crafted the hemp language inserted into the farm bill.

Despite the late planting, organizers are pleased with the crop's development, and the plots will provide useful information, Watson said.

"Our researchers went into this with virtually zero knowledge of hemp, at least from a production side," he said. "And even though these are very rudimentary plots this year ... they're still answering questions."

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