by Stephen Wagner
George Washington, the “Father of Our Country,” was said to have had a nearly abnormal interest in growing hemp when he lived at Mount Vernon. In 1794, Washington visited a hemp mill in Lancaster County, PA’s Paradise village. He was looking for improved equipment to process the hemp he grew at his estate. He stopped in to visit his friend, David Witmer, who owned the mill.
“Lancaster County was considered the capital of the hemp-growing region,” Jeff Graybill, host of the hemp segment of Penn State’s 2018 Farming for Success Day at SEAREC, said. “Historically, Kentucky is also a hemp-growing state, but Pennsylvania was ahead of Kentucky for many decades, prior to when its production began to wane.” He was speaking of the distant past.
“We didn’t learn about hemp in school,” he continued, “but we did learn about cotton in school. Cotton is a nasty crop! Cleaning the seeds out of it is hard. When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, it became more economical to produce fiber from cotton than from hemp.”
Over the years, hemp has been used for many products, including ropes, seeds and oils (even an Omega-3 characteristic). It was used for high-quality animal feed. But there were other properties and characteristics of hemp, largely for recreational uses. When they were discovered, hemp suddenly became a political football.
Back in the 1930s more discretion was exercised in what fell under the government’s watchful eye. On May 22, 1933, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot signed a law banning marijuana. The law went into effect on Sept. 1 of that year, which was four years before the federal government banned it in 1937. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of at least 113 cannabinoids identified as cannabis. Cannabidiol [CBD] is another. This was referred to as “reefer madness” in the ‘30s. Les Stark, an area historian, cites an example about one particular Pennsylvania farmer who was caught up in the craze. “THC, the chemical in marijuana that gets a person high, was not discovered until it was isolated in a lab by an Israeli chemist in the 1960s. Up until this time, there was no way to scientifically verify if a farmer was growing industrial hemp or marijuana. Because of that confusion, many Pennsylvania farmers were arrested simply for cultivating hemp. One such farmer was Enos Sheaffer. Enos lived in Lancaster County and he was arrested on July 8, 1938 at the age of 81.” He admitted that he was growing the crop but had no idea it was illegal. Sheaffer was thrown in jail until he made bail and was then forced to pay a heavy fine. Other farmers were also arrested and equally baffled.
The world of hemp farming had been upended, with their entire hemp crop being called marijuana and outlawed. Today’s strains of industrial hemp contain less than one percent THC. You cannot get high from industrial hemp, it is not marijuana.
“The legislature passed a preliminary bill to allow research to begin, again, on hemp,” Graybill said. “You would still need a permit and you would have to petition the state to be able to grow hemp.” Facing acres of hemp trial plantings at Penn State’s Research Center in Landisville, Graybill also noted that a few other farms are engaged in experimental hemp production.
“A lot of hemp here is being produced for CBDs, which are touted to have a lot of additional health benefits,” Sarah Pickels, PDA, said. She noted that the Pennsylvania legislation stemmed from the 2014 Farm Bill which allowed for hemp research. Prior to that, it was not allowed. “Overall,” she said, “across the state, we now have 36 acres under hemp cultivation, the first time in 80 years we have allowed hemp to be grown.”
But this comes at a cost: once the crop is grown, the challenge becomes how to harvest it because it is such a fibrous crop. “The harvest method, the combining alone – it is rope fibers, so if you can imagine a combine going through a field of 12-foot tall plants,” she said. “The challenge is self-evident.” Another aspect is processing. There are people in the state, she said, doing some oil processing from the seeds.
“It is a crop that takes some creativity. There is a great potential for profitability with the multi-uses,” Pickels said. A research permit is for three years of growth and costs $2,000 for the first year of the project, to be renewed on a yearly basis.