For the first time in decades, hemp, a crop once demonized as marijuana, has been planted in Central Kentucky, regaining an economic toehold that state agriculture officials hope can expand into a lucrative industry.
Although the crop was a vital one for the region through World War II, this was the first time hemp has been legally planted in the Bluegrass since the 1970s.
On Tuesday, University of Kentucky researchers sowed a small plot of 13 varieties of hemp seeds, released last week by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration after legal wrangling.
UK agronomists David Williams and Rich Mundell will oversee the study. The plants are expected to be up in seven to 10 days and harvested in October. The hemp varieties will be evaluated for their seed and fiber production.
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"It's exciting to be working on something different, and we're very hopeful it will be successful," Williams said. "Generally speaking, compared to some crops, it's not difficult to grow. But there are some things that are unknown today. In particular, differences in the varieties of hemp we have access to today."
Decades ago, hemp was largely grown for fiber; now, much of the interest is in the seeds, which can be pressed for oil.
"Hopefully, we'll find one or two varieties that will be better for Kentucky farmers," Williams said.
State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who advocated for bringing the crop back to Kentucky, has planned several pilot projects with state universities to gauge a variety of hemp characteristics.
At UK's Spindletop Research Farm, researchers will identify varieties suited to production in Kentucky; assess potential weed, disease and insect problems; and quantify seed and fiber yield of varieties along with the effects of nitrogen fertilization.
"We are pleased to be on the ground floor of investigating industrial hemp in the 21st century under the leadership of KDA," said Nancy Cox, dean of the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.
A plot using about 50 pounds of seeds was planted earlier this month at Murray State University in Western Kentucky.
Research projects also are planned with Kentucky State University, Morehead State University, Eastern Kentucky University, the University of Louisville and Western Kentucky University.
Gov. Steve Beshear on Friday signed emergency regulations to go into effect governing hemp production in Kentucky.
Comer hopes to expand hemp production to private growers.
"The University of Kentucky's pilot program will help us recover much of the knowledge about industrial hemp production that has been lost since hemp was last grown in Kentucky," Comer said in a statement. "I'm grateful to UK and the other institutions that are participating in the hemp pilot program. With their help, we will bring industrial hemp back to Kentucky and, with it, new jobs and new farm income."
Comer sued the DEA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder to release the seeds. A federal judge in Louisville negotiated a compromise that allowed the KDA to apply for a license and import permit for hemp, which is still considered a controlled substance.
Hemp and marijuana are both strains of cannabis sativa, but hemp contains negligible levels of substances that produce a high.
Although the Agriculture Department was required to secure the seeds, the plot at UK has no special fencing or other protections.
After the plants are harvested and evaluated for the study, they will be destroyed, UK said.