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Hemp offers new avenues

Once banned crop legal again

Courtesy photos from Alyssa A. Collins, Penn State University Penn State Extension Educator Jeff Graybill strips hemp stalks destined for fiber processing at the Penn State Southeast Agricultural Research & Extension Center, a research farm in Manheim.

Pennsylvania farmers now have the opportunity to grow a crop that had been illegal to grow for many years.

The recent passage of the 2018 Farm Bill has made the cultivation of hemp in Pennsylvania and across the country legal once again.

The farm bill removes industrial hemp from the definition of “marijuana” in the Controlled Substance Act, said Penn State Extension agronomy educator Rachel Milliron, during the recent Region 4 Farm Bureau Day in Johnstown.

The farm bill includes the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, which legalizes the production of industrial hemp — defined as Cannabis sativa L. plants containing less than three-tenths of a percent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This low concentration of THC makes hemp unsuitable for marijuana production, which remains federally illegal.

Hemp has a long history in Pennsyl­vania.

“When William Penn came to Pennsylvania in 1681, he envisioned Pennsylvania as a hemp growing state,” Milliron said.

“Hemp was grown in Pennsylvania for over 260 years. It was used for Conestoga wagon covers; a lot of clothing was made from hemp,” she said, adding that the remains of old hemp mills can be found in Lancaster County, the top producer of hemp.

However, in 1938 hemp was banned in the United States, Milliron said.

But, there are differences between hemp and illegal marijuana.

The key chemical differences between hemp and marijuana is the amount of THC content. Industrial hemp has low THC content.

“You can’t get high if you smoke industrial hemp,” Milliron said.

Prior to 2018, the United States was the only industrialized nation that did not allow the production of industrial hemp, Milliron said.

The 2014 U.S. Farm Bill authorized state department’s of agriculture to permit pilot programs for hemp evaluation and in 2016, the Pennsylvania Industrial Hemp Research Act was signed to develop a program administered by the state department of agriculture.

The program includes a mandatory permitting and monitoring program, but also removes much of the previous framework which growers, processors and marketers needed to navigate.

“Secretary Russell Redding said there are no limits on the number of permits to grow industrial hemp and it can be grown on an unlimited number of acres,” Milliron said, though growers must pay a $600 fee to get a permit to grow hemp.

“The plants will be randomly tested for THC,” she said, adding that landowners must allow PDA access for up to three years and hemp may not be grown within three miles of a medical marijuana growing facility.

Hemp is an historically important plant which has many uses ranging from fiber and fiber products to human consumables such as flours, oils and meals. A new use of high interest and demand is for cannabinoids (CBDs). The plant produces more than 100 different CBD compounds.

“CBD production is what a lot of folks are excited about. There is a lot of potential for profitability,” Milliron said.

Area farmers have differing opinions on the possibility of growing industrial hemp.

Mark Heeter and Laverne Nolt of Martinsburg were among those who attended Milliron’s presentation.

“I am more curious than anything. I don’t believe in legalized marijuana, I would never do it. You need to look at the financial end if it would be something worth looking into,” Heeter said.

“At the moment I am not interested, it is a work in progress. You need to have the infrastructure to handle the stuff and you need to have an outlet for it. The meeting was the tip of the iceberg for me. It is not the get rich scheme like people think it is,” said Nolt, owner of Laverne’s Produce Supply.

However, long-time farm bureau member Marty Yahner of Patton said he may be interested.

“There are many unanswered questions about production, marketing and end users that must be answered first,” Yahner said.

Milliron said several other states are ahead of Pennsylvania in industrial hemp production.

“We have to step up if this is something we want to excel in. Hemp can grow well in Pennsylvania. If applying for a permit, make sure you have a market or a contract in place. Prices vary on what type of product you develop. This is all very new, we don’t know how valuable the local markets are,” Milliron said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.

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