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Kentucky Agriculture Leaders Hope to Expand State's Hemp Market

Whitney Jones, WKMS

Kentucky’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Research Program is expanding as it rolls into its third year.

This year, officials are looking to further develop the state’s hemp market. Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles says hemp processors are an important part of the pilot program.

“It’s important that these processors get a business plan that works and get it linked up with farmers,” Quarles said. “That way if, and when, congress releases [industrial hemp] as a legal crop to grow, a lot of people already have a market they can look toward and they’re not jumping into something head first without having someone to sell it to.”

Quarles says hemp researchers have identified the need to develop different methods of harvesting hemp.

“Depending on what the use of industrial hemp is for, it needs to be harvested at a different time in its life cycle. And that’s the sort of research that those agricultural researchers here at Murray know better. And, in fact, we may have to invent new equipment,” Quarles said.

Division of Value-Added Plant Production Director Brent Burchett says 36 Kentucky-based hemp processors have been approved so far, with more applying. That is up from 26 processors last year. Burchett says some processors are focusing on the use of hemp in food products and others on the use of fiber for car manufacturing and textiles. He says there are also processors interested in extracting medicinal cannabidiol from industrial hemp.

The Department of Agriculture has approved 4,500 acres for hemp cultivation in 2016. Burchett says only 900 acres of last year’s 1,742 approved acres were planted due to difficulties importing the seed and unfavorable weather. He said last year’s heavy rain drown several acres of seed.

“There’s kind of a misconception that hemp is easy to grow. And our farmer’s tell us that is not the case. It needs a certain soil type, it needs good drainage, it needs all the attention traditional crops need,” Burchett said.

167 hemp farmers are approved to grow the plant in 2016, which is up from 95 last year. Burchett says most of the industrial hemp growers are former produce, tobacco, grain and cattle farmers.

Burchett says Kentucky’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Program is authorized through 2018 under the 2014 federal Farm Bill. It is unclear if the pilot program will continue in the following years.

“You know, farmer’s would really hope [there will be a new farm bill.] But if history is any indication what’ll happen next go around,” Burchett said. “It’s quite difficult to pass a farm bill in today’s congress. We’ll be looking with great interest to see if the hemp provision is included once again in the farm bill.”

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