Rural Blog: Ky. leads in development of commercial hemp, but crop’s potential in Eastern Ky. is limited

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Hemp offers limited hope for Eastern Kentuckians looking for an economic alternative to the region’s shrunken coal industry, Rachel Cramer reports in the “Crossing the Divide” series produced by the Ground Truth Project and Boston’s WGBH. Her story aired on West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s “Inside Appalachia.”

Kentucky is a leader in the development of commercial hemp, under special provisions that its representatives put the 2014 Farm Bill. In the state this year, 200 approved growers planted 3,000 acres, Cramer reports. Most crops are in Central and Western Kentucky; hilly Eastern Kentucky has much less land for farming, and a limited history of commercial agriculture.

“We can’t expect Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia to become major contributors to hemp as a commodity crop,” University of Kentucky agronomist David Williams told Kramer. He is among researchers who are trying to determine what varieties and growing methods produce the greatest yields at Kentucky’s latitude and climate, under a program overseen by the state Department of Agriculture.

Hemp has a reputation of growing anywhere, but that doesn’t mean it can grow productively anywhere. Nathan Hall told Kramer that he tried it on strip-mined land and failed, but Williams said there is potential in Appalachia’s narrow valleys for growing seeds and seedlings that could be sold to hemp farmers elsewhere.

Kramer reports that some of Kentucky’s hemp was planted for fiber, but most was for cannabidiol, an oil with medicinal properties. “The hemp strains with the highest CBD levels also have higher levels of THC,” the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, another product of the cannabis plant. “If the THC content is higher than 0.3 percent, the grower is required to burn the crop.”

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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