A recent University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment study went beyond hope and hearsay and examined industrial hemp’s true potential as a viable crop in Kentucky.

Profitable opportunities may exist for a limited number of farmers and processors, particularly in seed and oil, but the current lack of efficient fiber processing techniques, potentially strong global and domestic competition and a high return from row crops in recent years are some of the factors that could limit the number of growers willing to shift much of their acreage into industrial hemp production.

In response to an invitation from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, researchers in the UK Department of Agricultural Economics prepared a review, Considerations for Growing Industrial Hemp: Implications for Kentucky’s Farmers and Agricultural Economy. It was predicated on the Kentucky General Assembly’s passage of the “hemp bill” in March. The bill established a regulatory framework for the production and marketing of industrial hemp if federal policy should change or if the state could obtain a federal waiver.

“If political challenges are overcome, enticing processing interests to locate in Kentucky, along with production research, will be critical to capitalize on a relatively small, but expanding niche market for hemp products,” said Will Snell, one of the study’s authors. Other UK agricultural economists involved in the study included co-author Lynn Robbins, Greg Halich, Carl Dillon and Leigh Maynard. Dave Spalding, extension associate in the UK Department of Horticulture, also contributed.

Hemp is grown in more than 30 countries. China boasts the most acreage, but Canada, the U.S.’s likely chief competitor, is beginning to influence both production and trade. Their acreage has grown steadily over the past five years, and the Canadian government provides grants and no-interest loans to support production.

Hemp can be grown for both fiber and seed. Some people have talked about the potential for industrial hemp fiber to be a major market for Kentucky farmers.

“Based on what I’ve seen, that is not going to happen in Kentucky,” Halich said. “If people are doing this to make money, it’s going to be on the oilseed side, not on the fiber side, at least in the foreseeable future.”