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Comeback crop? Hemp advocates hope new law sparks research, investment in versatile plant

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The Rodale Institute in Kutztown is one of many organizations hoping to benefit from the return of hemp, a versatile crop that has not been grown in the U.S. for decades.
The Rodale Institute in Kutztown is one of many organizations hoping to benefit from the return of hemp, a versatile crop that has not been grown in the U.S. for decades. - (Photo / )

Hemp has not been grown commercially in the U.S. for more than 80 years.

But thanks to provisions in a newly enacted federal farm bill, that will be changing and changing fast. The bill, signed into law by President Donald Trump at the end of 2018, legalizes the farming of hemp,

Calling the decision an “essential shift,” Cameron McCoy, assistant vice president for economic engagement at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, said the move is opening a tremendous opportunity for industries across the board to grow and use a plant that he says has more than 25,000 industrial, environmental and medical applications.

Eastern and Central Pensylvania could be at the center of the booming hemp industry as many investors and researchers are eyeing the region as an ideal for hemp growing and processing.

Why no hemp?

While it is a member of the cannabis family, hemp lacks a significant concentration of THC, the psychoactive chemical found in its cousin, marijuana.

But because of the similarity of the two plants, hemp was classified as a Schedule 1 drug under federal law and its cultivation was banned in the 1970s.

However, farming of the plant had not been practical for decades up to that point.

Industry-crushing restrictions were placed on the crop around the time of World War II, eliminating much of its domestic cultivation.

Now, hemp is expected to make a quick comeback to U.S., and especially Pennsylvania, farms.

While restrictions and government oversight of hemp farming remain in place. The 2018 farm bill allows the broad farming of hemp. Previous rules permitted growing hemp only for research purposes.

The economic impact is expected to be significant, with experts in the hemp industry predicting a $22 billion market by 2022.

“The opportunity is enormous,” said Geoff Whaling, chairman of the National Hemp Association.

That’s because the demand is already there.

Importing hemp

Diana Martin, spokeswoman for the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, which has been participating in a hemp farming research program since 2016, said while the U.S. hasn’t been able to grow hemp, many U.S. industries use it.

Industries that currently use imported hemp

  • Auto: Brake and clutch linings, molded parts
  • Construction: Insulation, fiberboard, concrete block
  • Health and personal care: Nutritional products, oils, anti-microbials, lotions
  • Other uses: Rope, textiles, plastic replacement, fuel, paint, etc.
Source: The National Hemp Association

To get the material, companies have been importing it from other countries, including Canada and China, to use in products ranging from textiles and nutritional supplements to car parts and even for concrete-like building products for construction.

Whaling said it’s estimated that each year U.S. companies spend around $600 million to import Canadian hemp seed and seed oil alone.

“That’s been taking opportunities away from U.S. farmers to go after these emerging markets,” Martin said.

Martin said being able to grow hemp should be a particular boon to farmers in Pennsylvania.

“Pennsylvania was once a huge epicenter of hemp farming,” she noted.

As a girl she attended the Hempfield School District in Lancaster, which was named because of the abundance of hemp grown in that area.

In fact, Whaling said before World War II Lancaster County was the largest grower of hemp in the nation.

Ready. Set. Grow!

In some ways, the region is fairly prepared to return to growing hemp as a commercial crop.

As part of its Hemp research, the Rodale Institute has been planting and studying different varieties of hemp. The goal is to figure out which varieties grow best in the local environment.

“Since we haven’t grown hemp commercially for about 80 years a lot has changed,” Martin said. “We wanted to be able to give farmers info … to see what grows well here in our climate and soil.”

She said the research also entails determining which varieties of hemp produce the different qualities an end user might want out of the crop, such as the amount and quality of the oil, or the strength of the fibers in its stalk.

When Pennsylvania farmers are ready to start growing hemp, they’ll have the know-how.

Knowing how and what kinds of hemp to grow is only the first step, Whaling said.

Because it’s been so long since hemp has been grown as a commercial product in the U.S, the nation lacks the infrastructure to harvest, process and distribute it to industries that will use it.

First, Whaling noted, harvesting hemp isn’t easy.

Hemp fiber is known for its strength and durability. But the quality that makes the fiber so valuable, also makes it hard to separate from the stalk.

Special harvesting equipment is needed and is hard to find in the U.S. right now because of the lack of demand.

If famers try to use traditional harvesters used for crops like corn, the equipment will quickly become jammed and broken, Whaling said.

Other specialty equipment is also needed to process and break down the hemp plant into its various components.

Both Whaling and McCoy said because of the research already being conducted in the area by Rodale and Lehigh University, as well as the region’s rich hemp-growing history, the Greater Lehigh Valley is being eyed as a likely spot for hemp processing facilities.

Whaling said he contacted the Wolf administration to let it know he could have investors at the ready to fund such a facility if they could get state backing.

He said he believes he could get enough investors to put $100 million towards a hemp industrial park in the region using private money.

Work started

For nearly three years, Lehigh University has been working to research uses of hemp as well as the different supply chains needed to grow the industry.

“This institution [Lehigh University] was built around the steel industry,” McCoy said. “We’re looking at hemp as we looked at steel as an industrial product.”

In fact, he said, he sees hemp as having the same impact on the national and regional economy that steel once did.

While there is still a long road to go, McCoy said in many ways the development of hemp in the U.S. already has a strong base.

“It’s surprisingly more robust than you might think,” he said. While many researchers and potential funding sources have shied away from dwelling on hemp because of the stigma of its Schedule 1 drug classification, he gives credit to those institutions that had the foresight to move forward with research including Lehigh University and partners Jefferson and Delaware State universities, which have been working together in support of research.

But the changes ushered in by the farm bill will bolster efforts to learn more about hemp.

“This gives us some fabulous opportunities to understand what we can do with hemp in industry,” McCoy said.

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