A new advocacy group started by a Berks County farmer is looking to turn Pennsylvania into one of the country’s biggest growers and producers of industrial hemp.
Geoff Whaling, a farmer in Fleetwood, has formed the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council with the goal of making hemp legal for Pennsylvania farmers to cultivate.
He said growing hemp — which is different than the marijuana plant — has strong roots in Pennsylvania and the midstate. Whaling said he believes industrial hemp could be a billion-dollar business in Pennsylvania.
The fiber can be used in making auto parts, flooring, cabinets, textiles and biofuels, among other items.
“I don’t think you have to look any farther than ‘Hempfield’ in Lancaster County to know what kind of influence industrial hemp had on the local farming community,” Whaling said.
Industrial hemp may have a bad connotation, he said, but it’s not the same as marijuana. The ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, leads to the psychological effects for which marijuana is known, but it constitutes only about 0.3 percent of industrial hemp, he said.
“It’s like Boston ivy (the safe ivy that grows on trees and buildings) and poison ivy,” he said. “They’re that different.”
A former Canadian political aide, Whaling worked on that country’s entry into the industrial hemp market. It’s now a $2.5 billion crop for Canada, with about $500 million to $600 million exported to the United States, he said.
“I think we can get some of that money and some of those jobs into Pennsylvania,” he said.
Currently, it is legal to grow industrial hemp in 18 states, but Pennsylvania is not one of them. The 2014 Federal Farm Bill handed states the power to introduce pilot programs, and Kentucky is the leader, Whaling said, with about 3,000 acres dedicated to industrial hemp.
“It’s not a panacea crop, but it’s a good addition to a rotational crop,” he said.
He said Senate Bill 50, which would legalize cultivation of industrial hemp in the state as part of a research program at a college or university, is on the back-burner during the budget crisis.
He said the group will have a booth at the 100th Pennsylvania Farm Show in January to educate the public about industrial hemp production.
“When you see Mercedes and BMW using industrial hemp to make lighter, safer cars, and townhouse developments in England being built with hemp, you see the potential business in this,” Whaling said.