Hemp growing in midstate after outlawed for decades

Written by Rachel McDevitt | Aug 2, 2018 6:35 PM

Industrial hemp grows in a field in Rapho Township, Lancaster County. (Photo courtesy: Penn State Extension)

(Harrisburg) -- For the first time in 80 years, industrial hemp is growing legally in Lancaster County.

Penn State Extension researchers are growing five varieties of the crop on two acres in Rapho Township.

The former cash crop is related to marijuana but does not contain enough of the chemical THC to cause a high.

Hemp can be used for fiber, food, and oil. However, it was banned along with marijuana in the 1930s.

Alyssa Collins, director of Penn State's Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center, said they plan to compare seed harvests from the different varieties.

"We don't just care about how much it yields, we also care about how well does it out-compete weeds? How well does it combine? So does it wrap around our equipment and make it difficult to combine?" Collins said. 

But, she said there's ultimately a more important question.

"It's going to be: who is going to buy this from a farmer? Because they can process it and then they have a market to take that to after it? Because there's not really a good chain established for that yet," Collins said. 

At one time, Lancaster County was home to more than 100 water-powered mills to process hemp fiber.

But production of the crop declined with the popularity of cotton and tobacco, before it was outlawed in 1938 because of it's relationship to marijuana.

The 2014 Farm Bill passed by Congress allowed industrial hemp to be grown once again, though strictly for research purposes. Following state legislation, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture launched the Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program for the 2017 growing season.

Lancaster is not the first midstate county to study hemp. Last year, research sites were approved in Berks, Dauphin, Franklin, Mifflin, Perry, and Schuylkill counties.

Collins said she's already heard a lot of interest in hemp from potential growers and processors. She hopes to start a dialogue during a field day at the research center August 7th. It's open to the public, but registration is required. 

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