Kentucky’s much-hyped new cash crop has a cash problem.

Hemp, which can be grown for the cannabidiol (CBD) that has become a trendy over-the-counter treatment for ailments ranging from anxiety to heart disease, was reintroduced to Kentucky through a pilot program in 2014 and made a fully legal crop by last year’s federal Farm Bill.

The application period to grow the crop in 2020, which has started and will continue through March 15, is being promoted by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture even as farmers vacillate over growing the plant that is in the cannabis family and is at least distantly related to marijuana.

Hemp – which can be used for CBD as well as for food, rope, clothing, paper and building materials – has been billed as a possible replacement for tobacco and as potentially more profitable than traditional crops: corn and soybeans.

Then why the hesitation to jump on the hemp bandwagon? In a word, finances.

“The hemp industry is struggling right now,” said Mike Bullock, an agriculture specialist with Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College. “It’s a legal crop, but the banking system won’t loan money.”

With both farmers and those who process hemp struggling to come up with capital, the buzz about the crop has died down.

“I don’t foresee a lot of people taking advantage of it this time,” Alvaton farmer Landon Westbrook said of the latest round of applications to grow hemp.

Westbrook speaks from experience. He grew nearly 30 acres of hemp this year and is still waiting for payday.

“I’m probably not going to apply again unless a new deal with a new company comes through,” Westbrook said. “It’s hard for me to spend $50,000 to $60,000 on the crop and not know if I’m going to get it back.”

Westbrook had hoped to sell his crop to Winchester-based Atalo Holdings, but that hemp processor has run into its own problems finding investors.

“They (Atalo) told us they will pay us, but we don’t have a timetable,” he said. “I’ve found a couple of different markets, so I still hope to sell the crop.”

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles paints a more optimistic picture of the prospects for hemp, but he does caution about investing in the crop that was routinely grown in Kentucky during the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century before being labeled a controlled substance.

In a news release announcing the application period, Quarles said: “Kentucky’s hemp industry had a banner year in 2019 with nearly 1,000 growers and an influx of processors. We expect that momentum to continue in 2020, and we look forward to seeing more farmers apply to grow this crop that connects Kentucky’s past with its future. At the same time, we strongly urge anyone considering growing hemp to make sure they fully understand the risks as well as the opportunities involved in entering an emerging industry.”

For those willing to take the risk, an application to grow hemp can be found on the KDA website at kyagr.com/hemp.

To give potential hemp growers an opportunity to learn more about the crop, the KDA is holding a Kentucky Hemp Summit from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. EST on Wednesday at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville. The event is designed to provide applicants, growers and processors an opportunity to learn more about hemp production, the hemp industry, Kentucky’s plans for 2020 and the new online application process.

– More information about the hemp summit can be found at the kyagr.com/marketing/hemp-summit website.

– Follow business reporter Don Sergent on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdailynews.com.

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