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UPDATE: New company seeks to grow, process hemp, dispense marijuana in Berks; Valley also targeted

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Popular singer Melissa Etheridge speaks to a group in Reading about the legalization of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania.
Popular singer Melissa Etheridge speaks to a group in Reading about the legalization of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania. - (Photo / )

Advocates for the passage of the state's medical marijuana and hemp legislation today launched a holding company, two for-profit companies and one nonprofit organization, all based in Maidencreek Township, Berks County, to capitalize on the economic potential of industrial hemp production and medical marijuana research.

The two for-profit companies and nonprofit would be under the umbrella of AgriNEXTUSA, a holding company. One of the for-profit companies could establish and operate medical marijuana dispensaries in Lehigh and Lebanon counties, in addition to Berks. Also, there are plans to build a hemp multimillion dollar processing plant in the region.

The group made the announcement today at a gathering at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Reading.

Monday’s passage of House Bill 976 makes Pennsylvania the 24th state to reintroduce the industrial hemp crop to Pennsylvania’s farmlands, said Geoff Whaling, a Maidencreek Township farmer, philanthropist and entrepreneur who was one of the key organizers of the event, which drew about 30 people.

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

“It is, by far, a billion-dollar industry for Pennsylvania,” Whaling said.

AgriNEXTUSA is a holding company that Whaling said launched today and will focus on industrial hemp processing and finding a facility in Berks County that could be used for this purpose.

Also, Pennsylvania Harvest will be the name of the AgriNEXTUSA farming and processing company. Whaling said the nonprofit, 4Pa Advocates, is being created by the group of advocates’ lawyers. A percentage of the profits of both companies will go into the nonprofit for education and outreach efforts.

Finally, a separate for-profit company, Keystone Green MMJ, would explore the ability to apply for a separate growing/processing facility, and, potentially, establish a growing facility in Berks County on land that AgriNEXTUSA owns and establish and operate medical marijuana dispensaries in Berks, Lehigh and Lebanon counties.

While it is too late this year to plant hemp, farmers could take advantage of the ability to plant next April or May, said Erica McBride of AgriNEXTUSA.

“I’ve encouraged the [state] Department of Agriculture to make them aware that we want to build an industry,” McBride said.

There is no limitation on the amount of licenses that the department can approve, she said.

REDEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITIES

The hemp processing facility would provide a boost to brownfields or any site that needs redevelopment.

“It’s going to benefit the area, especially if we can find a building that needs rehabilitation,” McBride said. “It will provide the platform for research, provide jobs; it’s going to improve the environment. It [hemp] replenishes the soil and puts it back to productive use. We are particularly looking at it to benefit the Chesapeake Bay area watershed.”

Whaling, a Canadian native who lives in Fleetwood, said he did not know that Pennsylvania and most of the nation did not have industrial hemp legislation. In Canada, farmers have grown hemp for about 20 years, he said.

He and other advocates started a coalition called Coalition for AccessNow, a nonprofit led by families committed to educating the public on the health benefits derived from cannabis therapies. Also, he helped form the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council, a group dedicated to educating people about returning industrial hemp to the Pennsylvania agriculture industry.

APPEARANCE BY ETHERIDGE

Whaling’s friend, rock musician Melissa Etheridge, made an appearance to thank the advocates for their efforts.

A breast cancer survivor, Etheridge spoke about the need to combat the stereotype of the cannabis user, particularly since hemp is medicine that has been used in other cultures, such as South America, for many years.

“Twelve years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Etheridge said. “My body seemed under the stress and pressure of many, many things. I got cancer.”

Coming out as a medical cannabis user has bought many other people out to share their need for the medicine, she added. She praised the group’s efforts and acknowledged that it’s time for people to get over the fear of it.

“This is a beautiful, wonderful frontier that you have so courageously agreed to step into, so be very proud,” Etheridge said. “This is how anything is ever changed. Especially in our country.”

$5M TO $10M PROCESSING PLANT

State senators Judith Schwank and Mike Folmer said they spearheaded the effort to pass the medical marijuana and the industrial hemp legislation in the state Senate.

“We know that hemp has myriad other uses, including as a high-protein food, a potent medicine, a biomass source and a conservation crop,” Schwank said. “Hemp has unlimited potential, not only for farmers and agribusiness, but our entire economy.”

Whaling estimated it would cost between $5 million to $10 million to set up operations in Berks County for a processing plant.

“We will start and grow hemp,” Whaling said. “We are hoping with the legislation in place, we will start a hemp crop in Pennsylvania next year.”

PROTEIN, FIBER

Hemp oil extraction and the ability to manufacture items out of hemp are examples of the possibilities in Berks County, he added.

“The seed itself is very high in protein and it’s great as a fiber content to foods,” Schwank said.

If the federal government approves the legislation, the acreage of hemp could be large, she said.

“We know it will grow well here,” Schwank said. “The markets are here. If we had the opportunity via the federal legislation, there would be many, many farmers that would jump on board.”

The only thing Pennsylvania lacks is the equipment to process hemp. However, the state could get the necessary equipment imported from Canada, she said.

Whaling, who is looking beyond Pennsylvania, said he is getting calls from other states asking for help.

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Brian Pedersen

Brian Pedersen

Reporter Brian Pedersen covers construction, development, warehousing and real estate and keeps you up to date on the changing landscape of our community. He can be reached at brianp@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4108. Follow him on Twitter @BrianLehigh and read his blog, “Can You Dig It,” at http://www.lvb.com/section/can-you-dig-it.

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