The first legal hemp harvest in Kentucky in 70 years has begun. University of Kentucky researchers on Tuesday cut their test plot, which will rest in the field for a couple of weeks.
The 10-foot stalks will stay on the ground at Spindletop Farm while they break apart — a process called "retting," said David Williams, UK College of Agriculture agronomist. "Microbes break down the tissues of the stem ... The outside tissues form the bast fibers and the inside form the hurd fibers."
The 13 varieties sown this spring at UK will be evaluated for fiber and seed production. Other universities around the state, including Murray State, also planted test plots.
"It was a good growing season for many crops, not just hemp," Williams said. "Precipitation was excellent this year and more than adequate for growth. The only downside to the growing season was that we planted a little bit late, but I don't think that had much effect on the crop."
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Prior to being planted, the seeds were held up for two weeks in Louisville by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which blocked the seeds because the Kentucky Department of Agriculture did not have a controlled substance import permit.
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer sued the federal government to obtain the seeds and the KDA and DEA have reached an agreement to expedite permits and importing for KDA-affiliated pilot projects.
The hemp seeds were finally planted in late May. A handful of farmers around the state also have since planted test plots.
Comer said in a statement that this first UK crop "will yield significant data about production techniques, which varieties do best in Kentucky and which of the many uses of hemp are most likely to succeed here."
The KDA hopes to expand the number of growers next year and is pursuing processors.
Kentucky was once a national leader in hemp production before the crop was outlawed along with marijuana because it is botanically similar, although industrial hemp has negligible amounts of high-inducing chemicals.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, released a statement congratulating UK and Comer on the harvest.
"I was proud to include the measure in the Farm Bill that gave Commissioner Comer the go ahead to cultivate hemp for pilot programs, while maintaining my long-standing support for Kentucky's law enforcement's aggressive efforts at marijuana interdiction. I have heard from many Kentuckians who see this as a first step toward re-establishing this commodity and market for Kentucky, one that may create jobs in the future," McConnell said.