The Kentucky Department of Agriculture is gearing up to grow hemp this year after a letter from Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway indicates that farmers will be allowed to sell what they produce.
The state began making plans after President Barack Obama signed the U.S. Farm Bill in February that included language at the behest of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, to allow universities and state agriculture departments to grow research plots of hemp.
On Tuesday, Conway's office sent Agriculture Commissioner James Comer an advisory letter indicating that "absent any federal guidance to the contrary, (the Farm Bill) appears to exempt hemp pilot programs from the Controlled Substances Act, allowing the sale of hemp in Kentucky by those programs."
Comer said this will make a world of difference. Before, he said, some farmers were worried that they might have to destroy the crop. But the bill calls for researching marketability, so selling appears to be OK, Conway's office concluded.
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There is no restriction on the size of the hemp research plots.
Now, Comer said, companies and universities are eager to make plans. Eastern Kentucky University is considering growing hemp on its university farm. Pilot projects have been under discussion with the universities of Kentucky and Louisville and Kentucky State, Murray State and Morehead State universities.
Hundreds of potential growers have already inquired via the agriculture department's website.
Comer said he was on the phone Thursday with the nutrition company Nutiva.
"They're very interested in purchasing the processed hemp seed," Comer said. "Because of this letter, you're going to see the universities want to do projects on a much larger scale — if we can get the seeds in."
That's the big hitch now: getting foreign hemp seed into the United States. Customs agents already have sent some back.
"We're having a whale of a time getting seeds in here. It's more challenging than we ever thought it would be," Comer said. "It's probably going to have an effect on the amount grown here because we can't get the seeds."
Comer said the department has obtained about 500 pounds of seed, which would probably be enough for only one 10-acre plot.
"We're trying to get a container, which would be thousands of pounds," he said.
"I think most of the seed, if we can get it, will be from Canada and China. And they're totally different plants."
Either way, time is getting short.
"It needs to be in the ground between May 1 and May 10," Comer said.