- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 29, 2014

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner predicted Wednesday that a small hemp crop will be planted this year in a state where the crop flourished until losing its legitimacy long ago due to its family ties to marijuana.

Congress took another step toward finishing work on a federal farm bill that includes language allowing the startup of pilot hemp-growing programs. The U.S. has a fast-growing hemp market, importing millions of dollars worth of legal products each year.

The U.S. House passed the farm bill Wednesday with the hemp provision intact, sending it to the Senate. Kentucky’s senior senator, Mitch McConnell, played a key role in inserting hemp language into the legislation.

In Kentucky, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said his department is hashing out issues, including how many hemp-growing licenses it would issue if the farm bill becomes law with the hemp provision.

Hemp was historically used for rope but has hundreds of other uses: clothing and mulch from the fiber, foods such as hemp milk and cooking oil from the seeds, and creams, soap and lotions.

Comer, a Republican who has championed the hemp movement in Kentucky, predicted the crop’s comeback will become a reality - completing its journey from the political fringe into the mainstream.

“It will probably be a small hemp crop this year, but there will be a hemp crop in Kentucky,” Comer said during an interview at the state Capitol.

Comer said he’s also been talking with hemp processors in hopes of cultivating a market in Kentucky for the crop, which can be used to make a myriad of products, from clothing to cooking oil.

Kentucky lawmakers passed legislation last year that would allow industrial hemp to be reintroduced, but only if the federal government allows its production.

There are obstacles to overcome, even if Congress gives a go-ahead to pilot hemp production, Comer said.

Hemp seeds will likely have to be shipped in from Canada or China to plant a crop, and his office is trying to help arrange the shipments, Comer said. Then there are basic cultivation questions, such as when is the ideal time to plant and harvest hemp, and what types of farm equipment can be used, he said.

“If every farmer in this state that’s called our office tried to grow hemp, it wouldn’t be possible because the seeds aren’t over here yet,” he said.

The small number of licensed producers would work closely with university researchers.

House Agriculture and Small Business Committee Chairman Tom McKee said the looming congressional endorsement of hemp pilot-growing programs would be an important “step forward” in reviving the crop.

The crop thrived in Kentucky until it was banned decades ago when the federal government classified it as a controlled substance related to marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are the same species, Cannabis sativa. Hemp has a negligible content of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.

Kentucky is among 10 states that already allow the growing of hemp, though federal drug law has blocked actual cultivation in most. Besides Kentucky, those states are Colorado, Washington, California, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia.

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