LOUISVILLE - Federal customs officials have stopped a batch of Kentucky-bound hemp seeds from Italy that the state has planned to use as part of its first crop in decades, the state agriculture department said Monday.
The delay during prime planting season amounted to "government overreach at its worst," said Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. His chief of staff, Holly Harris VonLuehrte, warned the agency would go to court unless customs officials release the 250-pound seed shipment.
"We changed state law, we changed federal law," Comer said. "We did everything in a legally responsible way to bring the hemp industry back to Kentucky. And now the federal government is trying to flex its muscles and block this opportunity, violating its own law in the process."
VonLuehrte said the shipment was being held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in Louisville.
The federal agency did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Eight pilot projects are planned across Kentucky as part of a small-scale reintroduction of hemp to determine the crop's potential.
Some projects would study how to grow and harvest the versatile crop that once flourished in Kentucky, while other plantings would look at hemp's potential as a biofuel, construction material and animal bedding, VonLuehrte said.
The state's industrial hemp commission provided money to purchase seeds, while private farmers and universities are supplying the land and labor, she said. A half-dozen universities in Kentucky are participating to research the crop. The goal is for farmers to find markets for their crops.
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.
The crop's comeback took root with passage of a new federal farm bill. It allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp pilot projects for research in states such as Kentucky that allow the growing of hemp.
Kentucky lawmakers passed legislation last year that allowed hemp to be reintroduced, if the federal government allowed its production.
A California company supplied seeds for two of the projects, VonLuehrte said. But the others are relying on imported seeds, so those plantings are in jeopardy unless customs officials cooperate, she said. The department hopes to get other seed shipments from China and Canada.
The department has been told the hemp crop needs to be planted by early June to be viable, she said.