Industrial hemp gets a bad rap, advocates say.
The versatile plant, stigmatized by a different strain that yields marijuana, has been banned in Pennsylvania since 1937, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
But similar to the way that opposition to medical marijuana is fading, resistance to industrial hemp — a source of fiber and food for thousands of years — is weakening too.
The department has announced another step toward acceptance of industrial hemp, saying it will launch up to 30 pilot-project sites in 2017 to research how to best grow it.
The pilot project will determine the best seed varieties and soils for growing industrial hemp in Pennsylvania, where the plant once was a backbone of the agriculture industry.
“Industrial hemp certainly is not a new crop, but we believe it has the potential to become a very attractive part of Pennsylvania’s future,” said Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding in a prepared statement.
Hemp’s seeds, stalks, oil and leaves are used in clothing, rope, paper, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, mulch and animal feed.
There is no timetable for the return of commercial farming of hemp in Pennsylvania, said department spokeswoman Bonnie McCann on Monday.
Initial interest in growing hemp in Lancaster County is mild, said Jeff Graybill, a Penn State Extension agronomy educator for the county.
“I’ve gotten a half-dozen calls or more from people who are interested, but they all need to know more about it,” said Graybill.
“They have a lot of questions about the marketing and (the end use),” he said.
Graybill added, “I’ve gotten calls from another four or five people who’d be happy to rent their land to someone who wants to grow hemp.”
When or if the day comes when commercial hemp farming returns to Pennsylvania, farmers will face numerous challenges, said Keith Frey, a Manheim crop and dairy farmer.
Frey, who served on a steering committee that explored forming a hemp grower’s cooperative here, said:
“Growing industrial hemp is going to be the easy part. It’s the harvesting, processing and extraction of the oil and fiber” that are difficult and costly, said Frey.
On top of that, it’s unknown how marketable hemp will be, added.
“It might not be a sustainable cash crop for our local farmers,” said Frey. But if those challenges can be solved, there are literally hundreds of uses, he said.
Lancaster County once was a major grower of hemp, as indicated by the municipal, school district and street names of Hempfield, Hempland and Hempstead.
Its growth was encouraged by the state’s founder, William Penn, in the 1680s, according to the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council.
George Washington grew hemp at his plantation in Mount Vernon, Virginia, the council said. Washington even visited a hemp mill in Paradise as part of his search for better hemp-processing equipment.
One complication facing potential participants in the department’s research is getting seed. Transporting hemp seed across state lines is illegal.
So the department is asking the federal government for permission to import hemp seeds from other countries to be used in the research. Delays in obtaining that permission might push the start of the research to 2018.
What’s the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana?
According to the department, they are two varieties of the same plant, Cannabis sativa.
While marijuana has a significant amount of the psychoactive plant chemical delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, industrial hemp has just a trace of THC. Industrial hemp also contains a chemical that negates the impact of THC.
Nonetheless, the department is proceeding cautiously with the pilot project.
Applicants will need to describe how their research site will be secured and how they will destroy any hemp that’s left over when the research project ends. Applicants also will undergo a criminal background check.
If applicants are accepted, their projects can last up to three years and cover up to five acres.
The department will issue a research permit only to an institution of higher education or to a person contracted to grow industrial hemp for research purposes.
Hemp that’s grown in the research projects can be used only for industrial purposes.
The opportunity to grow industrial hemp for research purchases was created by the federal government’s 2014 farm bill.
Pennsylvania took advantage of that opening by passing Act 92, the Industrial Act Research Act. Gov. Tom Wolf signed the law in July.
The department noted that Act 92 did not allocate any money to fund the research projects.
So all of the department’s project costs — awarding permits, inspecting the projects, testing the plants — will be recouped by fees paid by the participants.
McCann estimated that project participants would pay about $5,000 in fees to participate, which does not include the cost of seeds or any farming expenses.
Participation is open to institutions of higher education and individual growers. Applications are due Jan. 6. Winners will be notified by Feb. 17.
For more information, visit www.agriculture.pa.gov/Protect/PlantIndustry/Pages/Industrial-Hemp-.aspx.