LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Plans for Kentucky's first hemp crop in decades so far have produced nothing but headaches.
A shipment of imported seeds was seized by U.S. customs officials, leading Kentucky's Agriculture Department to sue the federal government. The dispute delayed plantings that were supposed to happen this week, and now universities that enthusiastically volunteered to research the crop's potential are all of the sudden jittery because law enforcement is involved.
Growing hemp without a federal permit was banned in 1970 when the government classified the crop as a controlled substance related to marijuana. But imported hemp products, such as clothing, foods and lotions, have been allowed, and the industry is growing in the United States.
In 2013, the total retail value of hemp products sold in the U.S. reached $581 million, according to the California-based Hemp Industries Association. Much of the hemp comes from China, Canada and Europe.
With business booming, more than a dozen states wanted to see if they could cash in, too. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell crafted language in the federal farm bill that allowed states to start pilot growing projects this year.
In Kentucky, several universities planned on researching the viability of hemp, but state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who sued the federal government Wednesday over a seed shipment from Italy, said the legal entanglement has been "nerve-wracking" for the schools.
"They were wanting to have ceremonies for seed plantings to talk about the research they were going to do," he said. "And now the federal government has confiscated ... seeds. They're a little gun shy at this point."
Kentucky has been at the forefront of efforts to revive the versatile crop and the lawsuit is being closely watched by agriculture officials in other states.
So far, Kentucky has secured seeds from California, where the suppliers apparently got them from abroad. A group of military veterans interested in hemp farming planned to drop them into the ground Friday in Rockcastle County, but that half-acre planting is on hold while the lawsuit plays out.
Michael Lewis, a farmer heading up the project, said the delay could jeopardize the yield. Farmers believe most of the seeds need to be in the ground by the end of this month to have a good crop.