Hemp legalized, but uncertainties remain for farmers
Hemp supporters tout the newly legalized plant as a wonder crop, useful in medicine, food products and industrial manufacturing.
Westmoreland County farmers see it as a potential supplement to their usual crops, and a boost to the local agricultural sector.
State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, predicts the plant could be a major new industry, bringing jobs and cash to the county — if the state moves quickly to deregulate it.
“Our farmers need to know now if they’re going to be able to grow it or not,” he said.
Hemp and marijuana are both varieties of the cannabis plant, but, unlike its more notorious cousin, hemp can’t get you high. It has almost no THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana.
Nevertheless, the federal government has long treated both plants the same, classifying hemp as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, on par with heroin.
That changed last week. Congress passed a new farm bill this month legalizing commercial hemp production, and President Trump signed it into law Thursday.
“It’s been really busy and exciting,” said Erica McBride-Stark, executive director of both the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council and the National Hemp Association.
Despite the bill, there’s still a lot of uncertainty. Farmers and research institutions in Pennsylvania are allowed to grow a moderate amount of hemp for research purposes, but the state has no rules in place for commercial hemp production.
“As of today, we’re still operating under the guidelines that we’ve been operating under for the last two years,” McBride-Stark said.
The state agriculture department is waiting for guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture before establishing new regulations, spokeswoman Shannon Powers said.
“Hemp will still be a regulated crop; it will just be a crop where there’s a lot more opportunity for farmers,” she said. “We feel that we’re ahead of the game because we have had a research program in place for two years.”
Nelson disagrees. He thinks Pennsylvania’s window to become a leader in hemp is narrow — and closing. Farmers are currently limited to growing no more than 100 acres of the crop, not nearly enough to make it a major industry, he said.
“They’re going to kill industrial hemp for Pennsylvania’s farmers,” he said.
He’s been attempting to convince the state agriculture department and his fellow lawmakers to lift the requirement quickly, with no luck so far.
Commonwealth Alternative Medicinal Operations, a medicinal cannabis company, recently created the state’s first hemp processing plant near New Stanton. It’s capable of making medicinal cannabinoid oils, and company officials told the Tribune-Review that it plans to expand into textiles and food products by 2020.
Nelson is worried that, without enough hemp supply, companies such as CAMO might relocate to states like West Virginia, where there is no cap on how much hemp a farmer can grow. He still supports some regulation for the crop — farmers must be licensed, and the state takes steps to ensure they’re not growing marijuana in the guise of hemp. But he wants the 100-acre cap gone as soon as possible.
“It is the worst time for bureaucrats to stand in the way of business innovation,” he said.
CAMO founder Matthew Mallory declined to comment.
Powers said the state doesn’t want to rush into anything without knowing how the USDA will regulate the crop. She sees a bright future for hemp. Now that it’s legal, it likely will attract investors, who will build up the support systems needed to make it feasible.
“Eighty years of absence from the landscape means we have some challenges in terms of the supply chain, in terms of processing facilities, and the infrastructure for growing hemp,” she said.
One Westmoreland County farmer says he’s excited by the opportunity hemp provides, but wants to wait and see how things shake out before growing it.
Mark Wineman runs a third-generation farm. He owns about 84 acres, and leases additional land, where he grows hay, soybeans and corn.
“It seems like (hemp) is going to be a viable crop, and it seems like it’s going to be good for the local economy,” he said.
He and other farmers helped raise hemp on CAMO’s land, but he wants to wait a bit before growing his own. The biggest concern is making sure farmers have a buyer, he said.
“I don’t know where that market would be right now,” he said. “I know it’s in oils and stuff but, hopefully, we can get something more home-based here so that we have somewhere we can distribute that to.”
McBride-Stark said medical oils are currently the most popular hemp product in the United States, but she predicts hemp fiber, a versatile and durable material that can be used in manufacturing a host of products, will eventually take over.
“I think fiber is going to dwarf the rest of the cannabis industry combined,” she said.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jacob at 724-836-6646, [email protected] or via Twitter @Soolseem.