LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - After 80 days of waiting, the University of Kentucky industrial hemp pilot program is almost finished.
Last Friday, Kentucky agriculture officials and the federal government finalized an agreement on how industrial hemp seeds can be imported into the state. Growers need to apply for a permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency in order to be licensed to grow experimental industrial hemp; selling the plant commercially is illegal.
Plant and Soil Sciences Professor David Williams says soil moisture content has proven to be the most vital aspect toward growing a successful hemp crop without irrigation.
"If we had a dry summer this year, which we have not at all, then these plants probably wouldn't be as large as they are if we had a dry summer this year," says Williams. "The pilot program as it was administered this year is a great first step in expanding research in the future of hemp as an agronomic crop in Kentucky."
According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, industrial hemp can be used in over 25,000 different products including auto parts, carpet and lotion.
Williams uses an analogy of varieties of corn to explain the difference between industrial hemp and it's intoxicating cousin, marijuana, to his students.
"(It's similar to) the difference between sweet corn and field corn," says Williams. "The trained eye, or the farmer, can look and tell the difference between the two but many untrained eyes cannot. So it's a very similar situation with hemp and marijuana. They're the same species of plant but they're different bio-chemically."
Unlike marijuana, industrial hemp contains levels of THC (the psychoactive compound that gives users a high) of less than 1%, compared to 10% or higher in marijuana.
While the UK program has been a success, the future of industrial hemp in Kentucky comes down to economics.
"We have to have a market. We have to have a place where farmers can load it onto a truck and take it somewhere and sell it and be written a check," says Williams. "That doesn't exist today in Kentucky."
Williams says he hopes to expand the program next year to research more varieties of hemp and the conditions in which they grow.