UK hemp crop growing well without fertilizer, pesticide

jpatton1@herald-leader.comJuly 30, 2014 

Hemp's comeback in Kentucky is going strong, tall and green.

A patch of hemp seeded at the University of Kentucky's Spindletop research farm in Lexington in late May has grown to more than 6 feet in some places and is still going, with neither fertilizer nor pesticides.

"It's doing just fine so far," said Dave Williams, a UK agronomist who, with Rich Mundell, is in charge of the test plots.

"We've had enough rain to keep it growing and enough heat to make it grow," Williams said.

The first legal hemp planted in Central Kentucky appears to be off to a good start despite being planted later than originally hoped.

The seeds, imported from Italy, were seized by U.S. Customs officials in Louisville because the Kentucky Department of Agriculture did not have an import permit. Agriculture Commissioner James Comer sued the federal government to have them released.

The DEA agreed to expedite permits for the state and agreed that private growers also can be permitted by the department to grow cannabis sativa, which is almost identical to marijuana but with minuscule amounts of high-inducing chemicals.

The federal suit will be dismissed soon, said Holly VonLuehrte, Comer's chief of staff.

Further shipments have come in without difficulty, and now about 15 Kentucky farmers have planted test plots for the department, she said.

Williams said his hemp, which includes a larger plot with 13 strains, all thought to be fiber varieties, will be harvested in late September or early October.

The variety in the test plot that has become the poster child for Kentucky hemp is called red petiole and will be evaluated for how much fiber it yields.

This planting is just a first step for what many farmers across the state hope will become a lucrative crop.

The KDA anticipates having at least 30 farmers growing hemp next year, VonLuehrte said.

Williams plans to plant much more as well.

"We'd like to test more varieties than what were available this year," he said. "There are lots of different fertility regimes we'd like to look at, planting densities we'd like to look at. Lots of research yet to do."

Other Kentucky universities also planted hemp this year — the first time it has been legally planted in the United States in decades. Murray State got seeds in the ground first, in mid-May.

The same varieties at Spindletop also have been planted at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond and at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. Data from all the locations will be compared with the Fayette County trials.

Next comes finding a processor and a buyer. Some processors have expressed interest, Williams said.

"We're very excited about that," he said. "If farmers can't sell it, can't pack it up in a truck, drive it somewhere and sell it, ... And if it's not worth more than whatever their lowest value crop is, ..." Williams shrugged.

"Really, establishing that market is key."

Decades ago, when hemp was a major crop in Kentucky, it was grown primarily for fiber, as it is today in Europe. But Canada's hemp industry is built on seed, mainly processed for oil.

Williams and Mundell hope next year to grow some varieties for seed rather than fiber.

"This is just a baby step in the research that needs to be conducted before we can make great recommendations to farmers in Kentucky," Williams said. "This is just the first step in the right direction."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.

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