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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.”

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