Hemp: ‘Going from zero to a whole, brand new industry’
In a small field in South Huntingdon and a sprawling building near New Stanton, the future of industrial hemp production in Westmoreland County is being sown.
Yes, industrial hemp.
A casualty of the anti-marijuana fervor of the 1930s, hemp is being rehabilitated in Pennsylvania and other states where it once was a staple — used in everything from Ben Franklin’s publications to ship rigging, ropes and sails.
“We are going from nothing to building a crop — slowly, steadily, methodically,” said Lehigh County hemp farmer Geoff Whaling, president of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council. “We’re going from zero to a whole, brand new industry over the next 12 months.”
Although the same species of plant as marijuana, hemp is mainly grown for fiber, seed and oil. It is considered non-euphoric and therefore legal in Pennsylvania , as long as it has a THC concentration below 0.3 percent.
The plant is seeing a slight resurgence in the state with recent changes in the legal landscape, experts say. The 2014 Farm Bill led to the formation of Pennsylvania’s Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program in 2016.
Westmoreland County got in on the ground floor in 2017, when the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp. approved a $1 lease with the Pittsburgh-based Commonwealth Alternative Medicinal Options, or CAMO.
A medical marijuana research firm, CAMO grew five acres of hemp at the Westmoreland I-70 Industrial Park near Smithton in 2017 and expanded to 22 acres this year. The upcoming harvest will be processed for cannabidiol, or CBD, an oil valued as a vitamin supplement.
But CAMO founder Matthew Mallory has set his sights much higher — to making Westmoreland County the center of industrial hemp production in Pennsylvania.
“What we want to do is create an industrial hemp processing park,” Mallory said.
CAMO took occupancy of a 45,000-square-foot building near New Stanton in August and hopes to begin processing hemp and producing CBD oil by Oct. 1. Once up and running, it will be the first facility of its kind in the state, Mallory said.
The CBD line will be followed by a textile line in 2019 and a food item line in 2020, he said.
The hemp plant permitted by the state has multiple uses, depending on which part of the plant is used. Seeds can be developed into food products, while the stalk and inner core can be developed into textiles and other products, Mallory explained.
A 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service found that hemp is used in more than 25,000 products worldwide, including automotive interiors, textiles, paper, foods, beverages and nutritional supplements.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” Whaling said. “For what CAMO’s doing, there is an opportunity for local farmers. … What they’re producing will deliver a lot of product.”
Mallory wants to expand hemp production in Westmoreland County from 22 acres to 1,000 acres next year. He thinks he can do that by enlisting the help of local farmers, 12 of whom he’s already approached.
“We’re targeting smaller farmers to make sure they get an opportunity at this,” he said.
Participating farmers will work with mentors and will be trained in hemp farming basics. Mallory hopes to be able to pay them $750 per acre. He floated that inducement at the Next Generation Farm Summit held at the Westmoreland Conservation District in June.
Among Mallory’s biggest champions is state Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, who, along with several other Western Pennsylvania legislators, recently called on Gov. Tom Wolf to approve a grant for CAMO to purchase more hemp processing equipment.
“I personally have a goal to return hemp to Hempfield,” Nelson said, noting that a milling and drying facility is in the works for the township next year.
In the meantime, Pennsylvania hemp producers are awaiting the final version of the 2018 Farm Bill, which includes a Hemp Farming Act that would fully regularize the crop, Whaling said.
Whaling, who met Thursday with legislators in Washington, D.C., hopes the Farm Bill reaches President Trump’s desk by the end of the month.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter @shuba_trib.