EVANSVILLE, Ind., March 19 (UPI) -- Hemp sales in Kentucky more than tripled between 2017 and 2018, according to data from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
Hemp processors reported $57.75 million in gross product sales last year, according to the department. In 2017, it reported $16.7 million.
"These numbers prove the viability of hemp as a commercial crop," said Alyssa Erickson, the co-founder of Kentucky Hempsters, an organizations that promotes the hemp industry in the state.
Hemp growth in the state is expected to continue climbing in the coming years. The association has approved more than 50,000 acres for hemp planting this year. That's more than triple the number of acres approved in 2018. The number of farmers lining up to grow hemp also is skyrocketing -- with nearly five times as many applying this year as last.
Hemp as a commercial crop is taking off around the country after the 2018 Farm Bill removed it from the list of federally controlled substances. The hemp plant is a close cousin to marijuana, with one major difference -- hemp does not contain enough of the psychoactive chemical THC to make people high. But the two plants look enough alike that when the government began taxing marijuana in 1937, hemp was included. Likewise, when marijuana was made a Schedule 1 controlled substance in 1970, hemp again was lumped in.
In 2014, Congress passed a pilot program in that year's Farm Bill, allowing state's to grant a select number of farmers permits to grow hemp. The idea was to test whether the state was capable of policing commercial hemp while not allowing for more marijuana growth.
Hemp grew from a little-known plant to a nationwide sensation almost overnight. Driving the huge spike in demand has been the cannabis that hemp produces, called cannabidiol, or CDB. The market for CBD oil in the U.S. has exploded, propelled by stories of it allegedly curing countless human health maladies -- from healing wounds, stopping pain and eliminating anxiety to curing cancer and Alzheimer's disease.
The Food and Drug Administration is expected to weigh in soon on whether CBD will be regulated as a supplement or pharmaceutical drug. Though many scientists question whether it is effective for treating the conditions marketers claim it is, the demand for the oil continues to climb. And that is fueling more and more farmers to abandon traditional crops and plant hemp, instead.
Hemp's growth has been especially pronounced in Kentucky. Lawmakers there were among the first to push for a pilot program. After it was passed, in 2014, the state planted 33 acres of hemp. The next year, the acreage ballooned to 922 -- and the growth hasn't stopped.
"It's important to keep in mind that all of this economic activity took place before the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp production," Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles said in a news release.
Although the 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the list of controlled substances, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to establish a method for implementing the new regulations. That means the 2019 growing season still will be administered under the pilot project from the 2014 Farm Bill.
Though hemp's future as a commodity crop will depend on how the U.S. Department of Agriculture decides to regulate it, many farmers are optimistic about its future. In Kentucky, some even hope it will replace tobacco as the cash crop of the South.
"I am encouraged by these numbers and hope this news solidifies Kentucky's reputation as the hemp center of the United States," Quarles said. "We are building the critical mass of growers, processors and researchers that will ensure the hemp industry's success in Kentucky for years to come."