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Hemp uses and potential economic impact in Pa.

  • By Tom Riese/WVIA News
A variety of industrial hemp used for CBD extraction stands in a field in Mount Joy, Lancaster County on Tuesday, October 29, 2019.

 Rachel McDevitt / WITF

A variety of industrial hemp used for CBD extraction stands in a field in Mount Joy, Lancaster County on Tuesday, October 29, 2019.

Since receiving a National Science Foundation grant earlier this year, a wide-reaching coalition has started planning for the future of hemp in Pa.

But before growers take on large-scale hemp operations in Pennsylvania, industry experts say the state needs processing facilities to transform the plant into construction materials and textiles.

Hazleton-based biotechnology company Vytal Plant Science Research pulled in a $1 million NSF grant in May to lead a cross-sector Industrial Hemp Engine. The group is aiming for $160 million in competitive grants over the next 10 years.

Part of the plan could include a return to Pennsylvania’s agricultural roots.

“Lancaster County alone used to have a hundred mills for processing hemp in the 1700 and 1800s,” said Leslie Davidson, cofounder of Pennsylvania Fibershed and executive director of All Together Now PA. Her work focuses on growing regional economies, especially in the textile industry.

Hemp has long been lauded for its strong bast fibers, like those found in flax to make linen, she said. You can find that history in the name of Lancaster’s Hempfield School District, a tribute to the once-prevalent plant that grew on the county’s farmland.

But hemp was outlawed in the U.S. in 1937 for more than 80 years. Once that ban was lifted in 2018, the local textiles industry has sought to bring back hemp processing in Pa. and educate potential stakeholders. The hemp industry could once again boom, Davidson said.

Hemp processing facilities could have several uses. They “can also process both hemp and flax for linen for textiles,” Davidon said. “It’s also the ability to process hemp for ‘hempcrete.’”

Companies have developed construction applications like hemp-based concrete, bioplastics, fuels and insulation. Americhanvre Cast Hemp based in Wescoville, Pa. partnered with Davidson for a ‘hempcrete’ workshop earlier this year in Berks County. The company previously rehabbed a housewith the material.

“I don’t think we realize how well we’re positioned in Pennsylvania,” said Dr. Ron Kander, who sits on the advisory board for the industrial hemp engine. He’s dean of the Kanbar College Design, Engineering & Commerce, associate provost of applied research at Thomas Jefferson University and co-chair of the Pa. Hemp Steering Committee.

“We have growing land where people know and understand how to grow this crop. We have major manufacturing cities that have strong histories in manufacturing and in textiles.” And, he said, Pa. is uniquely positioned to serve large markets on the east coast.

After 2018, the state issued many early hemp growing permits for those interested in the chemical CBD, a non-psychoactive chemical produced by floral hemp. Hemp contains only trace amounts – about 0.3% – of THC, the intoxicating chemical found in cannabis. Kander said the market was flooded with CBD, and many growers couldn’t capitalize on the crop.

The real money, he said, is in “the large volume applications.”

“Are you making automotive composite parts? Are you making geotextiles for the construction industry? Are you making building products?” Kander asked. “Those are the things where thousands of thousands of acres can be processed every year.”

Pennsylvania could ship hemp-based products all over the world, and the hemp planning engine is brainstorming how to make that a reality, he said. In about 18 months, the engine’s phase two proposal will determine whether or not more NSF funding will come. “That’s when the big money arrives,” he said.

“That manufacturing step, that processing step is the thing that’s everybody waiting for the domino to fall,” Kander said, “and when that falls everything else falls in place with it.”

Regional partners

The Pa. hemp engine leadership and advisory team includes representatives from institutions throughout the state, many based in Northeast and Central Pennsylvania.

Luzerne County Community College and Lackawanna College will focus on workforce development. Bill Schoen, director of the Lackawanna’s office of continuing education, said the school has an industrial hemp research permit, though it’s not growing the crop at the moment. Their environmental education center in Covington Twp. covers 200 acres and could be a good location for an operation, he said.

“We participate in regular calls and regular meetings with the group,” Schoen said. “We’re all trying to find the sweet spot. What makes good for the employment sector and the workforce development sector and what is good for each individual institution?”

Though Lackawanna College has a 17-credit cannabis professional program, it’s geared toward the medical marijuana industry. Schoen said as the hemp industry grows, the school will determine how they can best serve an interested workforce.

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