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This photo from July 2018 shows hemp legally growing in Lancaster County for the first time since 1937. Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center near Manheim.

Industrial hemp is drawing a lot of interest in Lancaster County, and 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 30, is the deadline for those interested in joining the market to get an application to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

At least 32 permits have been issued for Lancaster County, according to department spokeswoman Shannon Powers.

That’s eight times as many as the four permits issued here last year, at least one of which covered multiple growing locations.

Powers said the new applications are for 80 growing locations here, and the department is not requiring permit holders to say what variety of industrial hemp they are planning to grow.

Fiber and oil from hemp is used for thousands of products worldwide, including automotive interiors, textiles, paper, foods, beverages and nutritional supplements — with the compound known as cannabidiol or CBD attracting particularly intense interest.

Industrial hemp was banned nationwide in 1937 because of its similarity to marijuana. Federal farm bills loosening the restrictions paved the way for Pennsylvania to allow its growth for research purposes starting in 2017 and then commercially starting this year.

The research program was pretty restrictive, and 2018 was the first time any Lancaster County farmers participated in it. This will be only the second year in more than eight decades that industrial hemp has grown legally in Lancaster County.

Industrial hemp and marijuana are different varieties of the same species of plant and, by law, hemp must be destroyed if it has 0.3% or more of the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

The state agriculture department said properly completed applications received before Wednesday “will be processed, and those applicants will have until May 21 to sign and return their permits for final execution.” For those who have already begun the permitting process, “no additional growing locations will be approved after May 1.”

Potential issues

In an email, Powers briefly acknowledged concerns about cross-pollination with medical marijuana, and differing varieties of industrial hemp.

“The department will not approve growing locations within three miles of a medical marijuana facility, and does not recommend growing within three miles of a variety grown for CBD or certified seed,” she said.

Alyssa A. Collins is director of Penn State University's research center in Rapho Township, which grew industrial hemp last year.

She said in an email that there’s no minimum required space between various kinds of industrial hemp fields, which “may begin to cause problems for farmers who are not aware of what neighbors are growing or haven't communicated well with their fellow farmers.”

“Early pollination of CBD hemp by other hemp types can be problematic for achieving the highest CBD content,” she wrote. “We don't yet know the best recommended distance although I've read some suggestions that 10 miles apart would be reasonable. Pollen can travel quite a distance, but hopefully with good communication among this new cohort of growers some community standards can be agreed upon.”

Collins also noted the “not inconsiderable” risks of jumping on the hemp bandwagon, as “we have no knowledge of what the market will be once harvest time comes.”

“Farmers and investors will do well to try to anticipate every step of handling this crop, and adding that to a contract so it is clear who is responsible for what,” she wrote. “What if the crop tests too high in THC? The sunk costs are significant once this is discovered at the end of the season, and money will be lost — who bears that risk?”