Hemp Research Projects in Colorado and Kentucky

Hemp research in Colorado and Kentucky

Different Strokes For Different Folks

2014 has turned out to be a watershed year as two US states have gone ahead with hemp cultivation. Hemp actually in the ground, legally, in American soil and growing as we speak and read on the Internet.

Watching hemp grow is quite something.

Planted in under half an inch in in late May, emerging within the week. The plants grow quickly and with vigor. It’s been said you can hear corn grow, popping sounds carried by the night winds, well you can see hemp grow. Pretty much. Wee sprouts in the first week of June are waist high by the 4th of July. If well established at planting hemp can be a real green monster.

Depending on cultivar, hemp can grow between 3-15 feet. There’s a wide range. One thing that is often overlooked is that hemp is photoperiodic and responds biologically to long days and short nights. Flowering and seed formation occurs on healthy plants some weeks after the solstice when the night length is long again to trigger this activity. Cultivars do best adapt to specific latitudes, affecting growth and maturity, so a northern dwarf oilseed variety can grow to human height in the south, while a more southern fiber variety will never enough time to flower or fully mature in the northern plains.

First year farmers, researchers, and business will see this in person for the first time and sort this all out. And soon they will have to handle harvest for the first time. Burning combines and shattered seeds and all. And then the crop handling of drying, storage, cleaning, grading, transport, primary processing, and turning into a viable form direct to market or for use downstream to a secondary processor. Many issues to consider. And remember growing hemp is the easy part.

At this point, sixteen states have passed legislation allowing them to take immediate advantage of the industrial hemp research and pilot program provision, Section 7606 of the 2014 US Farm Bill. But there are only two states which were really ready this year: Colorado and Kentucky. They make for an odd couple and have taken apposite approaches. Kentucky is by the book, by the rules, with a methodical, rational, planned, and scientific approach. Colorado is freewheeling, entrepreneurial, risk taking, and hyped up. Together they make a compelling story. If they were people on a TV sitcom, they could share an apartment. Hijinks ensure.

Kentucky Hemp Research

Bluegrass state first. Kentucky has deep involvement in the current federal set up, with the creation of the Kentucky Hemp Grower’s Co-operative association, to leading American states with push for legislation, and with the involvement of GOP Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is crafting the language needed to get the Farm Bill’s Hemp Research provision acceptable to Congress and signed into law by President Obama in January 2014.

The Kentucky Agricultural Commission has have undertaken a comprehensive research program involving five projects, each involving different universities, cultivars and end goals. These include the following:

  1. Heirloom seeds for industrial use in association with a farm veterans marketing program
  2. European cultivars for fiber studies
  3. Canadian cultivars for industrial and renewable energy projects
  4. Bioremediation
  5. A field production with an Asian cultivar to study industrial hemp production and biomedical cannabinoid research


It’s all very methodical, planned and orderly … as orderly as agriculture can be. But because of seed availability and associated logistics, not everything went according to schedule. Some fields were planted late. Still a large body of information and data will be created over the span of this multi-year program, which will be invaluable in recreating industrial hemp as a viable crop in this state (as well as others). Many other states will be adapting the tidy Kentucky model.

Colorado Hemp Research

1,200 miles to the west, Colorado has taken a different and risky approach. Because of a state-wide ballot initiative regarding all cannabis laws, Colorado no longer enforces federal laws on the subject. So, the growing climate is extremely liberal. Colorado had hemp in the ground last year and it was expected that there would be a big upswing in interest this year.

And there was a lot. As of mid-April, there were at least 43 registrants. Some were to be engaged in research while others planned on growing commercial crops. There was a lot of interest. After the formal registration period ended, Colorado decided to change the application process and changed the rules — expanding into a year-round registration period, busting the spring only window and opening up potential for indoor cultivation and breeding. At last report, two hundred farmers proposed to plant 1,600 acres. Woah! That’s a lot of acres for a new crop. As of writing it is unknown how much was planted, and it’s unknown how much will be harvested, and again it’s unknown how much of this new harvest will find a buyer.

It’s a high wire act, and while one hopes people will not lose their shirts, and not to be a “Debbie Downer,” this writer predicts a bunch of those farmers will wind up marking 2014 as a learning year and writing off this crop as a business expense. It sucks and its ugly. But these kind of agribusiness failures be an indictment against hemp’s potential as a big picture cash crop … it should just show where work needs to be done.

Regardless, every good story needs a villain, and in dutiful form, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has put on its black hat and made the casting call. Because of prohibition, there is no legal domestic hemp seed supply, so all planting seed had to be imported. And because protocols were not in place, DEA held up seed shipments numerous times this summer, including a shipment from Italy in late May to Kentucky and a shipment from Canada to Colorado in late June. Some out of country seed providers chose not to participate in this year’s domestic trials because they foresaw it would be a hassle and a headache. But as it turned out the DEA’s rear guard action had little backup and enough political capital was applied in Washington to bring the agency back into line.

The trick was fiscal force. Budget amendments by hemp-forward politicians made hemp seed that was part of the Farm Bill’s research provision to be outside the scope of DEA funding and hence, enforcement. And so, a $3 billion agency was sidelined.

Recent reports state that some seed are still crossing the border in July. Planted a few days ago, not much will be expected of that late sowing. But damn, hemp is in the ground! Keep in mind that failure is kind of normal in agriculture, keep in mind this is the first chance hundreds of American farmers and researchers have had a chance to get hands on and down and dirty with industrial hemp. And keep in mind that other states are watching and will be following up with fields of their own in 2015, learning from 2014’s mistakes and growing for the future. By the time the Farm Bill runs its course, hemp will be well on its way in America.

This summer is where it began.