By Don Sergent | Bowling Green Daily News

Hemp seeds | Courtesy

Like weeds choking out a cash crop, news for local farmers has been mostly noxious of late. But that could be changing, thanks to new federal legislation on hemp, quick action from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and an emerging crop that benefits from both.

Hemp farming, which has taken baby steps in the state since the 2014 passage of federal legislation allowing the crop to be grown on an experimental basis, could start moving at an all-out sprint after December’s passage of a Farm Bill that removes hemp from the list of federally controlled substances.

“It’s very promising and upbeat,” said Mike Bullock, an agriculture specialist at Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College. “I think a lot of people are interested in it.”

Joanna Coles, Warren County’s University of Kentucky agriculture extension agent, is also seeing increased interest in hemp, a crop akin to marijuana but without the high concentration of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) that gives marijuana its high.

“We’ve probably had bigger interest this year than we’ve ever had before,” Coles said of farmers looking to grow hemp. “We’ve had a lot more people coming into the office asking about it.”

Why all the buzz?

Because industrial hemp is a crop with many applications and just as many potential markets. Grown in Kentucky from the 18th century through the early 20th century primarily as a fiber source for rope-making, hemp is gaining popularity as a source of CBD (Cannabidiol) oil used for pain relief and other medicinal purposes. It also has applications in fabric, textiles, food and even in building materials.

Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles, shown speaking at a November meeting of the Bowling Green Rotary Club, submitted the state’s hemp oversight plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture as soon as the federal Farm Bill legalized the crop. | Photo by Don Sergent/Bowling Green Daily News 

Those myriad uses and the profit potential of the crop led Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles to be first in line to submit a hemp oversight plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Dec. 20, the day the Farm Bill passed.

“I view industrial hemp as an economic development initiative,” Quarles said. “Kentucky is the best state to be strategically ready for the growth of industrial hemp.”

That growth could reach gold rush proportions, according to New Frontier Data, a cannabis market research firm that predicts the overall hemp market could triple from its current level to $2.5 billion by 2022.

“This will be a breakout year for hemp in Kentucky,” said Quarles, who pointed out that hemp acreage in the state under the experimental program has jumped from 33 acres in 2014 to 6,700 in 2018. With more than 1,000 applications to grow hemp in 2019 already received in Frankfort, Quarles is expecting more than a fourfold increase in the number of growers and a “20 to 30 percent” hike in the number of hemp processors.

Quarles said those wanting to grow hemp must still submit to a background check and submit their farm’s GPS coordinates with their application.

Although the upside for hemp is great, Quarles cautions that “there is risk involved.”

“I’m not saying hemp will replace tobacco as a cash crop,” he said. “But I’m confident that Kentucky will be a leading state in the growth of hemp.”

In an environment that Coles describes as “break even” for corn and soybean growers, that’s welcome news.

“Long-range prices for corn and soybeans don’t look outstanding,” said Bullock, who pointed out that corn prices have fallen from as high as $8 per bushel in 2012 to below $4 today. Likewise, soybean prices have dropped from $12 or more per bushel to below $10 over the past five years.

Bullock said hemp has the potential for returns of $5,000 or more per acre. Now that the crop is legal, he believes it will open up opportunities for more farmers to make the investment needed to start growing the crop.

“Up until now, if you went to a bank to borrow money to grow hemp, you couldn’t do it,” he explained. “It was an illegal crop. Now that barrier is gone.”