Industrial hemp backers say crop has economic benefit
Lancaster County businessman Shawn Patrick House wants to believe the latest legislative effort to legalize hemp farming in Pennsylvania will succeed.
But he's been fighting long enough to know it's probably a long shot. Under Senate Bill 50 — introduced by Sens. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) and Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) — the cultivation and processing of industrial hemp would be allowed as part of a research program at a college or university.
“It is just an opportunity for our farmers to keep their land and to grow a profitable crop,” said House, who produces hemp-based products.
The potential profits are significant.
Canadian farmers are reporting net profits of $200 to $250 per acre of hemp, the Agricultural Marketing Resource Board reported. U.S. Department of Agriculture data puts 2014 profits from an acre of corn or soybeans at $365 and $288, respectively.
An Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development report estimates gross revenue for Canadian hemp seed production between $30.75 million and $34 million. In 2010, exports of Canadian hemp seed and hemp products were valued at more than $10 million.
The obvious hurdle is perception, of course. Hemp is the distant sister of cannabis, although supporters say hemp has none of marijuana's mind-altering qualities.
“Industrial hemp does not have a psychoactive effect. The THC level is less than 0.03 percent,” Folmer said. “Misconceptions are withholding Pennsylvania from an opportunity for our agricultural and business industries to thrive.”
Given the legal go-ahead, farmers could benefit from the demand for hemp in products ranging from paper to fuel and clothing to biodegradable plastics, said Schwank, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee.
The federal 1937 Marijuana Tax Act restricted industrial hemp production. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act made hemp illegal, although the 2014 Farm Bill loosened production restrictions.
“We need to get on board with this,” Schwank said during a recent conference call. “After all, 200 years ago it was a pretty prominent crop in Pennsylvania.”
House began making hemp-enriched cosmetics, such as lotions and soaps, in the late 1990s. In 2005, he incorporated as Lancaster Trading House Inc. His product lines fall under two businesses: Hempzels, which includes soft pretzels, mustard and protein powder; and Natalie's Choice, which sells his granola bars, nut butter and jams.
All are made from hemp, House said. While he doesn't have a physical store, House sells online and at shows such as the Pennsylvania Farm Show. His mustard is on Wegmans' shelves.
“It's slow and steady, and my business continues to expand at a nice pace,” he said. “The soft pretzel is the winner. That's going to be my thing that doubles and triples my sales.”
But House said he is tired of fighting to educate the public and politicians that hemp does not equal marijuana. Experts estimate a person has to smoke about 20 times the amount of hemp in order to reach the high state achieved with cannabis, according to the website Hempethics.com.
As a food product, hemp is touted for its health benefits because it is packed with essential fatty acids and is rich in vitamin E. Supporters say hemp is a more-durable material that makes better clothes.
New Holland Agriculture makes equipment that processes hemp for grain or fiber and sells it to foreign farmers, House said.
“The research has been done for hemp,” he added. “We have equipment manufacturers who are selling equipment to the Europeans and the Canadians.”
Steven Auerbach, executive director of the Cannabis Growers Association of Pennsylvania, said the private sector is “very enthusiastic” about the Senate bill.
A lawyer, Auerbach said the bill would regulate hemp as an agricultural commodity, one that has more than 25,000 uses. The limestone-rich soil in which hemp grows best is “found heavily in Lancaster County,” he added.
The bill also would create a five-member Industrial Hemp Licensing Board that would be established within the Department of Agriculture.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 13 states have statutes establishing commercial industrial hemp programs. Another seven states have passed laws establishing industrial hemp programs that are limited to agricultural or academic research purposes.
The history of hemp
The U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of hemp products but is the only major industrialized country that outlaws domestic hemp production.
Hemp has a long history in America, and supporters like to point out that Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson grew the plant. U.S. industrial hemp production peaked in 1943, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, with more than 150 million pounds from 146,200 harvested acres.
But production disappeared by the late 1950s as a result of “anti-drug sentiment and competition from synthetic fibers,” according to The Associated Press.
Hemp producers import seeds to produce a variety of goods. Canada is the main supplier of hemp seed products to the United States.
The movement to restore industrial hemp production is moving forward at the federal level as well. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill in the House to put an end to the federal ban on hemp production in the United States.
The Industrial Hemp Farming Act would amend the Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana and would allow American farmers in any state to grow the crop.