FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's experiment with hemp production is yielding more acreage and processors.
Farmers gained approval to plant nearly three times more hemp than a year ago as testing accelerates on its viability as a cash crop, the state's Agriculture Department said Thursday.
"It reflects the tremendous enthusiasm that Kentucky farmers and processors have in a crop that connects our past to our future," said Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.
State agricultural officials approved 209 applications from growers, allowing them to produce up to 12,800 acres of hemp this year. Experimental projects began in Kentucky with a mere 33 acres in 2014. Last year, 137 growers were approved to plant up to 4,500 acres.
Production spans the state and varies in scope from small plots to large production covering several hundred acres in a few instances, said Quarles, whose great-grandfather grew hemp.
Increased production is attracting more processors, who now total about 40 in Kentucky, he said. It's all part of efforts to make Kentucky "the epicenter" for the hemp industry, he said.
Kentucky has been at the forefront nationally in efforts to return hemp to mainstream status.
Growing hemp without a federal permit has long been banned due to its classification as a controlled substance related to marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
Hemp got a limited reprieve from the 2014 federal Farm Bill, which allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp projects for research and development.
Hemp is prized for its oils, seeds and fiber.
The crop, which once thrived in Kentucky, was historically used for rope but has many other uses, including clothing and mulch from the fiber; hemp milk and cooking oil from the seeds; and soap and lotions. Other uses include building materials, animal bedding and biofuels.
So far, 31 states have authorized hemp research, while actual production occurred in 15 states last year, with production totaling 9,649 acres, more than double the 2015 output, said Eric Steenstra, president of the advocacy group Vote Hemp.
The hemp that is grown can be sold for profit, but only if authorized by a state's agriculture authorities. Steenstra said the spike in Kentucky production is a good sign.
"The growth in demand for hemp production despite the challenges faced by producers is proof of the economic potential of this crop," he said. "It is time for Congress to act and remove the remaining restrictions" on the crop.
Those production challenges include finding seed and the fact that research is still evolving on how to grow hemp and the best varieties for each region, he said.
Atalo Holdings Inc., a hemp research and production company based in Winchester, Kentucky, said it purchased $2 million worth of last year's hemp crop from contract growers in the state. It anticipates purchasing at least 25 percent more from this year's crop, said Andy Graves, the company's chairman. Its contract growers will total at least 65, up from 58 last year, he said.
Still, Graves urged farmers to be cautious about ramping up hemp production too rapidly.
"The processors need to be able to buy the product and pay a good price, but also be able to sell it into the marketplace for a good price," he said.