Industrial hemp holds promise for farmers across Pennsylvania, but there are obstacles that must be removed before the fibrous plant can blossom into a thriving industry here, says state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding.
The most obvious: the longstanding federal restrictions on growing hemp.
Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was preparing legislation that would take hemp off the controlled substance list and recognize it as an “agricultural commodity.”
“The goal of this new bill, should it become law, is to simply remove the roadblocks altogether,” McConnell said. “It would encourage innovation and development and support to domestic production of hemp.
Hemp is considered a controlled substance because it is in the cannabis family, along with marijuana. Hemp, however, is not intoxicating like its “illicit cousin,” as McConnell described it.
Even if the legislation passes and is signed into law, Redding said there are many practical issues to be hammered out before farms can take advantage of the crop, which can grow as tall as 15 feet. They include learning to grow and manage hemp — and then lining up buyers.
Still, there appears to be interest among farmers here, including Plain sect farmers. About 50 people attended a meeting at Daniel’s Farm Store in Leola this week, where Redding spoke about the future of hemp production in the state. The session was organized by state Reps. Bryan Cutler of Peach Bottom and Keith Greiner of Upper Leacock Township.
Here are some takeaways from the discussion.
Are growers making money?
Not yet, Redding said. The program that Pennsylvania started last year allows growth only for research projects. And until federal regulations change, there’s a $2,000 permit fee to cover the required background checks and field registrations.
Is there a market?
Hemp is used in thousands of products; it’s estimated to be a nearly $600 million industry in the United States, with manufacturers currently obtaining it from other countries.
The trick, Redding said, will be to find ways into that market.
How much could it bring as a cash crop?
LNP reported in January that developers are exploring building a facility in the Lehigh Valley that could process up to 14,000 acres of hemp, with an eye to offering farmers contracts before they plant.
An attendee who said he was familiar with those efforts offered what he called a conservative estimate of $300 to $1,000 per acre.
Both he and Redding noted that a lot remains to be seen as local markets develop and farmers figure out how to best use the versatile crop.
Is it safe to grow near children?
Yes, Redding said. Although it’s a type of cannabis and looks similar to marijuana, industrial hemp won’t get anyone high.
What’s the timeline?
Hemp grows in roughly 90 days, Redding said, which gives it potential for use as an early or late rotation for planting with another crop.
Permit applications for this year closed Jan. 19. Redding said he expects a similar deadline next year if the permitting process is still required then.
But, he said, anyone considering growing should start research long before then.
As things stand, he said, seeds need to be imported from other countries, with oversight from the Drug Enforcement Agency, and that process has been taking months — which caused some issues last year and likely will again this year.
What did growers learn last year?
Some fields had a lot of weed problems, Redding said, and some of the imported seeds had very low germination rates.
Varieties differ greatly in height and other attributes, he said, with some of the tallest ones bringing numerous harvesters to a halt, as farm equipment here is not intended to handle hemp’s super-fibrous stalks.
Where can farmers get more information?
The department has posted information online at agriculture.pa.gov/Plants_Land_Water/industrial_hemp/Pages/default.aspx.
Additionally, Redding noted that he expects the industrial hemp research project that Penn State University is conducting to be useful to farmers here.
As LNP previously reported, Penn State plans to move that project to its Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Lancaster County this year, and Greg Roth, a professor of agronomy at Penn State University, said it would like to invite farmers “to see our trial and discuss its potential.”
The center’s main phone number is 717-653-4728.