LEBURN - Industrial hemp's comeback in Kentucky will start with at least five pilot projects to gauge the potential of the versatile crop that flourished until marijuana was banned decades ago, the state's top agriculture official said Monday.
"Hemp will go into the ground in Kentucky for the first time since World War II this year," Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said during a Knott County event to announce a series of steps to increase agriculture in the hilly terrain of eastern Kentucky.
The initiatives include a new Appalachia Proud brand to promote the region's fruits, vegetables, honey, meats and other farm products.
Hemp's reintroduction will have a statewide reach, with test plots expected to be planted this spring from Appalachia to the western Kentucky grain belt. Hemp cultivation will be tied to research.
University of Kentucky researchers will study basic production questions - which hemp seeds grow best, best times to plant and harvest and what equipment can be used. In another project, the university will look into the crop's potential medical benefits. Eastern Kentucky University will study hemp's potential as an alternative energy source. Other research partners include Murray State University and Kentucky State University.
"We hope these pilot projects prove that it actually does have a future," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who along with his Kentucky colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, played key roles in pushing for hemp's reintroduction.
Both Republican senators attended the event along with business and farm leaders, university officials and other elected officials.
For now, farmers will donate their hemp harvest for research, but Comer is trying to turn it into a money maker for growers.
The Republican agriculture commissioner is teaming with Democratic state Attorney General Jack Conway in seeking a federal waiver allowing for the expansion of hemp production for commercial purposes. The waiver is being sought from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Both Comer and Conway are seriously considering campaigns for governor next year.
Comer said he doesn't know how many hemp acres will be planted in Kentucky this year. The availability of seeds is an obstacle in getting the experimental crop in the ground, he said. Conway has pledged to contact federal border patrol officials to ensure hemp seeds for the pilot project are legally imported.
Comer touts hemp as a way to boost Kentucky's economy, especially in rural areas, by creating jobs from its cultivation to processing.
The new federal farm bill allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp pilot projects for research in states that already allow the growing of hemp. Kentucky lawmakers passed legislation last year that allowed hemp to be reintroduced, but only if the federal government allows its production.
Rockcastle County farmer Michael Lewis said Monday he's ready to jump into experimental production to help determine how to "fit this crop back into the family farm." He's got room to plant 50 to 100 acres of hemp, but said the size of his first crop will depend on access to seeds.
Lewis said he was confident hemp will take root as a viable crop in Kentucky.
"Absolutely it's going to work," he said. "It worked 80 years ago."
Madison County alpaca farmer Alvina Maynard sees the potential of blending alpaca and hemp fibers to create novelty clothing and upholstery fabrics. Maynard said she'd like to partner with farmers to supply hemp.
"It produces a textile that neither one could create on its own," she said.
Hemp 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 creams, soap and lotions.
Hemp production was banned decades ago when the federal government classified the crop as a controlled substance related to marijuana.
Hemp and marijuana are the same species, Cannabis sativa. Hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
Besides hemp, Comer presented several other recommendations to help agriculture in the region:
-Creating a tourism center featuring the region's food, arts and crafts and abundant wildlife, ranging from elks to birds. It also would include a concert venue. Several locations have been identified as potential sites.
-Encouraging colleges and universities to develop niche agricultural products that could thrive in eastern Kentucky.
-Seeking legislation to return 100 percent of coal severance tax dollars to coal-producing counties, and dedicating 15 percent of those funds to agricultural development.
"People say, 'Well, we can't grow food in eastern Kentucky because of the mountains and the terrain,'" Comer said. "There are lots of things that grow in the mountains."