Some State Farmers To Grow Industrial Hemp

By Andrew Wagaman The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Pennsylvania is one of the top five importers of hemp in the nation. According to Erica McBride of "The Keystone Cannabis Coalition", farmers and entrepreneurs are more than willing to calculate and assume the economic risk of production.

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

Too often in recent years, Heather Skorinko has struggled to make money growing corn and soybeans on her North Whitehall Township farm, which has been in the family for more than 120 years.

She has especially grown weary of the uncertainty sown by ever-fluctuating prices. Corn farmers have seen earnings this decade jump 50 percent over two years, only to drop for the last four years.

But Skorinko found cause for hope in 2015 when she discovered the movement to legalize cultivation of industrial hemp, the strait-laced sibling of marijuana. Both come from the same fibrous plant, but hemp has a negligible amount of the psychoactive substance that gets you high -- delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. And it happens to be a versatile crop, used to make everything from rope and clothing to health food and beauty products.

After doing some research, the 60-year-old grandmother realized she could grow hemp on part of her 170-acre farm without buying any new equipment. She began to make plans with a neighboring farmer in the summer after the state Legislature unanimously approved a research pilot program. Here, finally, was a cash crop that might provide stability for farmers. And it could be a boon to others too, potentially spurring a billion-dollar industry in Pennsylvania, advocates say.

Then in December the state Department of Agriculture released the pilot program's permitting guidelines. It didn't take long for Skorinko to realize hemp would remain, at least for another year, virtually off-limits to family farms such as hers.

The department limited permits to 30 and projects to 5 acres, and is charging permit recipients a $3,000 administrative fee. Among a slew of other expenses, it will also charge $100 an hour including travel time for an indefinite number of site inspections, and $200 per hemp sample to test THC levels.

Since 2014, the federal government has permitted the cultivation of hemp for research, and some states have decided such research should include commercial endeavors. Farmers can grow industrial hemp for commercial purposes in at least 16 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Not in Pennsylvania, though. The Department of Agriculture restricted research to hemp fiber and seed despite both federal and state legislators being open to studying any part of the cannabis plant with a THC level beneath 0.3 percent. And perhaps most maddening to prospective growers: The department will not permit projects "for the purposes of general commercial activity."

In other words: Skorinko would have no way to make any financial return on her investment.

"The regulations are ridiculous," Skorinko said. "It's mind-boggling to me that they didn't take the time to really understand the plant when making a decision that could positively affect the future of farming in Pennsylvania."

Department of Agriculture officials say the program guidelines represent an honest effort to learn more about the cultivation of, and potential market for, industrial hemp while also shrewdly navigating a patchwork of federal law.

State officials are waiting for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Drug Enforcement Administration to answer some of the same questions hemp advocates are asking state officials, figuring the parameters could always be loosened.

"We are doing exactly what we need to do to determine what factors would contribute to a successful commercial industry, if and when legislation is in place to allow that," said Ruth Welliver, the state Agriculture Department's director of plant industry.

Critics call the permitting guidelines paternalistic and argue that only universities, larger farming operations and established outsider hemp businesses can feasibly afford to participate in the pilot program. The state Agriculture Department addressed one aspect of that criticism last month, announcing that pilot program participants can apply for a $1,000 cost-sharing program, that would cut the administrative fee to $2,000.

But critics fear the state's cautious approach will cause it to substantially miss out on a burgeoning market.

Pennsylvania is one of the top five importers of hemp in the nation, and farmers and entrepreneurs are more than willing to calculate and assume economic risk themselves, according to Erica McBride of Keystone Cannabis Coalition.

"We're asking the state to get out of the way," she said. "If it's not economically viable to grow hemp, people will figure that out. But they deserve the chance to try."

Geoff Whaling, a Berks County farmer and entrepreneur, had planned on investing $5 million in an operation that would have included the state's first hemp processor. It's not going to happen in 2017, he said, when a maximum 150 acres are being harvested.

Whaling, president of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council, is aware of at least two other entrepreneurs who have decided to take multimillion investments to other states that are allowing commercial activity.

The permitting guidelines are "manifestly violating state law" because they redefine what industrial hemp is, Whaling charged, and are "the makings of a lawsuit."

Crop of the past U.S. manufacturers import tens of millions of pounds annually in hemp seeds from Canada and millions of dollars of raw and processed hemp fiber and other products from China and Europe. Hemp's fiber (which grows on the outer portion of the stalk) and hurd (which grows on the inner portion) can be used for fabric, paper and rope as well as plastic for automobile parts and home building materials such as "hempcrete." The imports generate annual U.S. sales of nearly $600 million, according to industry estimates cited in a 2015 U.S. Congressional Research Service report.

Some researchers have studied uses of hemp seed oil for fuel and medicine. Others have found that, because of its woody nature and long taproot, hemp can be grown as a conservation crop to suck up toxins from soil and to mitigate polluted runoff.

Bryan Berger, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Lehigh University, plans to apply for a permit to study hemp's ability to remediate metal-heavy soils at sites where mining or other industrial activities had occurred. He's also interested in what potential uses remain for toxin-sucking hemp.

Pennsylvania's relationship with hemp dates to the days of William Penn himself. According to hemp historian Les Stark, the state General Assembly encouraged farmers to grow hemp in 1683. And during the 18th and 19th centuries, Lancaster County alone was home to more than 100 water-powered hemp fiber processors.

But to understand hemp's history is to understand its relationship to marijuana, the mind-altering flower that can grow from a Cannabis sativa plant if cultivated for that purpose.

When the cannabis plant is cultivated for its stalk, fiber and hurd -- industrial hemp varieties -- it grows tall like corn. That's not conducive to growing marijuana, which is why advocates dismiss fears of hemp being used as a front. California marijuana growers have actually fought hemp deregulation because they believe hemp pollen will ruin their crop.

Nevertheless, when Pennsylvania outlawed marijuana in 1933, it curtailed the hemp crop as well. Amid a sensationalistic propaganda campaign, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which taxed industrial uses. A few years later, desperate for materials to make parachutes and other military necessities, the government actually made a film called "Hemp for Victory" that encouraged farmers to grow the crop.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Control Substances Act, which classified all varieties of the Cannabis sativa plant as a schedule one drug -- alongside heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Legal hemp cultivation became virtually impossible under strict DEA regulations.

The tide turned in 2014, when Congress included a section in the Federal Farm Bill allowing institutions of higher education and persons contracted by state agriculture departments to grow hemp without a DEA permit.

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