Lancaster County farmers are hoping to cash in after an 82-year prohibition on growing hemp has been lifted.
This year’s commercial hemp harvest is the first since 1937, when the growth of all cannabis was outlawed in the United States. With the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill and the approval of commercial hemp production, farmers across the state are hoping their new crops can buoy a struggling agriculture industry.
Lancaster County was a hotbed of hemp production in the 1700s; two townships, East and West Hempfield, are named after the crop. The county might be poised to take that role again. Of the 323 growing permits issued by the state Department of Agriculture in 2019, Lancaster County received the most: 55, covering 180 farms. There are 812 farms growing hemp statewide.
Though some hemp is being grown for the fiber and seed for which the crop was traditionally used, many local farms are growing hemp for cannabidiol, a compound known as CBD. Steve Groff, of Cedar Meadow Farm in Martic Township, operates one of Pennsylvania’s largest hemp farms, with 70 acres grown for CBD.
CBD has become a wellness craze and can be found in products including topical rubs and patches, tinctures, vape pens, oral pouches, capsules and pet products.
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Steve Groff shows CBD hemp plant that was harvested at Cedar Meadow Farm in Martic Township on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. Groff has 70 acres of hemp, one of the largest hemp operations in Pennsylvania.
The unpollinated female plants produce the flowers containing higher levels of the valuable cannabinoids, the legal chemical that makes the hemp valuable for use in extracts. If the male plants are left in the field, the crop will get pollinated, and the value of the crop will decline drastically.
Steve Groff’s Cedar Meadow Farm in Martic Township has 70 acres of CBD hemp, which is about 1,750 plants an acre, with about 4 to 8 feet of spacing between plants. The bare spots in the field at the left show where male plants were removed. The unpollinated female plants produce the flowers containing higher levels of the valuable cannabinoids, the legal chemical that makes the hemp valuable for use in extracts. If the male plants are left in the field, the crop will get pollinated, and the value of the crop will decline drastically.
In his first year of hemp production, Groff said he realized that the different varieties of hemp plants grow very unevenly. He said next year he will apply more fertilizer because the hemp plants responded well. In addition to hemp, Groff also grows barley, wheat, oats, hay, tomatoes, winter squash, pumpkins and field corn for feed on the farm. In Pennsylvania, all hemp farmers must hold state-issued permits, and their permits are backed up by GPS coordinates for their fields and THC test results for the plants.
In Groff’s operation, the plants were started in a greenhouse and after about four weeks of growth were transplanted to fields in early June. Hemp is sensitive to the changing hours of daylight through the season, so by September, the CBD hemp plants are in flower mode. The long spindles, called colas, are full of the flower buds that will be harvested, dried and processed into CBD oils and extracts.
At right, Peter Hughes, president of Red Barn Consulting, drives a tractor pulling a wagon of
harvested CBD hemp Oct. 1 at Cedar Meadow Farm. Hughes is the owner of the mechanical harvester that is mounted on a tractor owned and operated by R.B. Miller. Some hemp plants were harvested with a mechanized harvester, and
others were cut by hand at the base of the plant. The harvesting method is based on the availability of the harvester, Groff said.
In many regions, most strains must be harvested before flower heads are fully mature to prevent THC levels exceeding the legally prescribed limit of 0.3%. Although a version of the cannabis
plant, CBD hemp is not marijuana and does not contain high levels of THC, the chemical that gives
users a high. THC levels can spike because of
environmental factors such as high summer heat.
CBD hemp grows at Cedar Meadow Farm in Martic Township on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. In many regions, most strains must be harvested before flower heads are fully mature to prevent THC levels exceeding the legally prescribed limit of 0.3%.
Steve Groff looks over CBD hemp that is hanging to dry inside a building at his farm on Sep. 19. Groff said there is a variability among the dozens of varieties of CBD hemp plants, with some tall, short, wide, narrow. Genetics aren’t purified.
CBD hemp hangs to dry at Cedar Meadow Farm in Martic Township Thursday, Sep. 19, 2019. The entire CBD hemp plant is hung to dry inside a greenhouse that was covered with a tarp to keep out light.
Steve Above, Groff exits a building being used for drying CBD hemp Sept. 19 at his farm. The whole hemp plants are hung to dry inside a greenhouse with a tarp placed over the structure to keep out sunlight. Sunlight can bleach the hemp, which reduces the quality of the plant. Hemp is dried to about 10% moisture, which takes two to four weeks, depending on the weather.
Another option for drying hemp is an industrial-sized dryer owned by Keystone Agri-Science. At right, Caleb Kauffman checks the moisture content in CBD hemp that is drying in the dryer on Sept. 26 at an eastern Lancaster County farm. Groff, who is a partner in Keystone Agri-Science, said he and about 50 other area farmers worked together to invest about $1 million in a drying machine to speed the process. Drying hemp in the dryer takes just hours compared to longer drying time when the hemp is hung inside a building.
Hemp grown for CBD has a compact flower that can retain moisture. The plant can’t handle humidity fluctuations well while hanging in a barn. Mold can grow in the flower, and the level of CBD can decline. The highest concentration of CBD is in the bracts of female flowers but CBD oil may be extracted from the whole plant.
Penn State Extension agronomy educator Jeffrey Graybill talks about hemp at Penn State Southeast's agricultural research and extension center, 1446 Auction Road, in Rapho Township, on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. The plant he is holding is hemp that has been grown for fiber and seeds. In an interview earlier this year, Graybill said the majority of the farmers he has talked to are growing small amounts hemp for cannabidiol, a compound known as CBD.
Seeds are harvested from hemp plants at Penn State Southeast's agricultural and research and extension center on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. Alyssa Collins, director of the center, said the hemp seeds are used to make foods such as canola oil or sunflower oil.
Alyssa A. Collins, director of Penn State Southeasts' agricultural research and extension center, shows the contents of a CBD hemp plant that was cut up after harvest on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. After a CBD hemp plant dried, it is cut up before the extraction process.
Harvesting began in late September and continues through the fall. After the harvest, growers dry the hemp quickly so it doesn’t mold. From there, the dried CBD hemp will be ground up and the oils extracted in a processing plant. The oil will be filtered and bottled.
See the harvesting and drying process below.
From seed to sale: A timeline on growing and harvesting hemp
Late winter/early spring
- Apply for permit from the state Department of Agriculture.
- Find a reputable source for seeds, clones or transplants.
- Start lining up a buyer and formulate plan for processing.
- Prepare growing plot.
- Plant seeds, seedlings or clones.
- Monitor soil moisture.
- Start to plan drying process in the fall.
- Walk fields daily, inspecting for and culling male or hermaphrodite plants.
- Keep weeds under control, monitor moisture levels. Stressed plants will spike in THC.
- Because of the change in daylight hours, the plants change from vegetative state to flowering stage.
- Establish a third-party testing lab. Start sending samples to lab every few days to make sure THC levels don’t go above the legal limit of 0.3%.
- Continuing daily THC testing to determine harvest time.
- Solidify process for drying plants.
- Harvest time: Clip plants, transport to drying facility or hang plant material. Lack of airflow will result in mold, which will ruin the harvest.
- When moisture is about 10-12%, the dried plants are ready to process.
- After hemp has been harvested, dried and processed it is ready to send to a CBD processing facility to extract the CBD rich hemp oil. After initial extraction of the crude CBD rich hemp oil, CBD is further refined to produce CBD distillate or CBD isolate which are then sold or processed into finished CBD medicines such as oil tinctures or capsules.