Pennsylvania is eyeing a major expansion of its resurgent industrial hemp industry, offering more than three times the number of permits currently issued as part of a pilot program.
2017 was the first time in decades that industrial hemp could be grown legally in Pennsylvania, and the program could expand tenfold in 2018, according to Governor Tom Wolf.
The state offered 30 research project permits limited to 5 acres, and 16 of the 17 submitted applications were approved. Officials said that the projects totalled under 50 acres.
Next year, up to 50 projects, either educational institutions or individual growers, will be permitted to grow up to 100 acres each, a possible maximum of 5,000 acres.
Hemp "had a long history in Pennsylvania until it disappeared from the landscape half-a-century ago," said Wolf, and said this year was "a learning experience" that showed "a tremendous enthusiasm among growers."
Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said in a written statement: “We learned about the challenges of sourcing seed, controlling weeds, harvesting, and finding markets… Each of last year's 14 projects taught us something valuable and we're pleased that every one of those project leaders are likely to reapply next year… We expect to see the full potential of this industry in 2018."
Once, hemp was so prevalent in the area that it gave East and West Hempfield townships their names, a reminder of the legacy scattered across the state. But swept up in the stigma of marijuana, it was banned in 1937, despite not having anywhere near the same level of the psychotropic chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
It wasn’t until 2014 that the federal farm bill paved the way for a law in 2016 to reauthorize the growth of industrial hemp for research purposes, with Gov. Tom Wolf signing legislation to create the hemp pilot program.
Applications are due by January 19, 2018; for more info, check out Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture website.
Geoff Whaling, who owns a Berks County farm and chairs the National Hemp Association, said the expansion will allow for the development and sale of more products, at least on the local level.
"[Current law] doesn't allow us to create new products available in every Target store across the country," he said, "but it could be available in every store in Pennsylvania."
Advocates like Whaling joined state officials over the past year in trying to convince the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency of the value and legality of expanding the program.
Whaling said he's currently working on a "center for excellence," (government jargon for a research partnership between top colleges and universities) that will be located in Lehigh County. Jefferson and Lehigh universities have already signed on, and others are likely to join.
"They want to look at the fiber, what varietals to plant, how to harvest . . . what is the supply chain, how do you process the stuff and research and develop products," he said.
The industry in America has a lot of catching up to do.
For instance, growers don't have farming equipment designed specifically for hemp. The plant can grow up to 20 feet tall, and special equipment would be needed to efficiently remove the seed head from rows of plants, said Whaling.
There are also limits on how the products resulting from hemp cultivation can be used and sold under current farm bill provisions. Products can’t be sold nationwide, and growers can't import large quantities of seeds, something that would be necessary for a major business.
On that front, Whaling said he's working on language for a new congressional farm bill and standalone legislation that would address banking and law enforcement issues surrounding hemp production.
Pennsylvania's expansion, however, is a good incremental step.
"It's an indication Pennsylvania really wants to support and grow this industry," he said.
A 2015 Congressional Research Service report found that hemp was used in 25,000 products, including beverages, foods, nutritional supplements, paper and textiles. The United States, with a $600 million industry, was the largest importer of hemp.
Hemp has already returned to Canada and several European countries. Since the 2014 farm bill, an increasing number of states have allowed for its return. So far, 38 states and Puerto Rico have enacted legislation allowing for commercial, research or pilot programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.