It is Hemp Day on the farm, and two dozen people, including a few notables, are standing on the edge of a one-acre plot in the middle of Rodale Institute's experimental organic farm in Maxatawny Township. A cow moos in the distance.
There’s nothing to see yet, but it is a momentous occasion all the same.
In a day or two, explains Emmanuel Omondi, research director of the farming systems trial at Rodale Institute, scientists will plant hemp seeds from Canada in this rich soil. The four-year study will focus on how hemp affects soil health and weed control.
For the first time in more than 80 years, Pennsylvania has allowed hemp to be grown again – but under highly regulated and limited conditions.
After Gov. Tom Wolf signed the Industrial Hemp Research Act last July, the Rodale Institute and Lehigh University were selected to be among the initial 16 research organizations permitted to study the plant under the aegis of the state Department of Agriculture.
One of the purposes of the legislation is to explore the potential for economic growth that hemp could bring to the state.
And people in industry and agriculture are watching.
TIME FOR RESEARCH
Pennsylvania is now among 25 other states that are studying the leafy, nonpsychoactive cousin to marijuana. Although hemp has been cultivated for thousands of years, there has been very little research conducted on it.
Hemp fiber, seed and oil are used in thousands of products, from rope to soap, granola bars to smoothie mixes, plastics to biofuels.
About $688 million in hemp products were sold in the U.S. in 2016, but its potential in the marketplace and in agriculture has barely been tapped, according to Vote Hemp, a national nonprofit advocacy group founded in 2000 to remove barriers to industrial hemp farming, processing and commerce in the U.S.
The problem is, it’s still illegal to grow hemp in the United States.
But that could change as what started as a grassroots movement to change its legal status builds momentum among the states.
Often confused with marijuana because it is a variety of the same plant, Cannabis sativa, industrial hemp has little to none of the psychoactive plant chemical delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which produces the “high” in marijuana.
Hemp became a casualty of the anti-marijuana hysteria that swept the country beginning in the 1930s and was later labeled a Schedule 1 drug by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
“For many years, hemp was a nonstarter – it was confused with marijuana,” said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp.
“Hemp is not a drug crop,” said Steenstra, who was among the speakers during Hemp Day at the farm. “Let American farmers grow this.”
State Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, chairwoman of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, wants Pennsylvania to be a hemp-farming powerhouse.
Schwank has been a strong advocate for hemp to return as a legal cash crop in Pennsylvania and co-introduced legislation two years ago, much like the law that was signed by Wolf last July.
“It’s a crop that has a long history in Pennsylvania, but also has a great future,” she said.
“When you look at the issue of climate change, soil remediation, the popularity of alternative crops, it makes it a very viable crop for Pennsylvania farmers.”
Schwank stands firmly behind the science of hemp. She has a strong background in agriculture, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agriculture education from Penn State, was a Berks County horticultural agent for the Penn State Cooperative Extension and dean of agricultural and environmental sciences at Delaware Valley College.
“I learned of [hemp] by attending some national agriculture conferences. Some states like Kentucky and North Carolina were talking about this brand new crop that they were hoping to replace tobacco with and were doing research on it,” she said. “I thought this was something we once grew in Pennsylvania and why shouldn’t we be growing it as well?”
MISUNDERSTANDING AT FIRST
Some of Schwank’s colleagues in the senate raised their eyebrows when she first began speaking out in favor of it.
“There was a lot of misunderstanding but people were willing to listen,” she said.
Schwank thought they’d get a better understanding if they could see some of the products that could be made out of hemp.
“So we put a hemp energy bar on every desk in the senate,” she said.
Hemp, a perfect protein, contains all 9 essential amino acids and is a good source of fiber, Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids.
Schwank’s bill sailed through the senate with unanimous support.
SUITED FOR PENNSYLVANIA
Pennsylvania has the perfect climate to grow hemp, Schwank said.
“We have a long enough growing season for it,” she said.
Hemp isn’t finicky, either.
“As long as it gets heat out of the ground to germinate, it will grow practically exponentially. It’s a hardy plant. And in terms of pests, such as insects or disease, it doesn’t seem to be a problem.”
ROOTED IN AMERICA
For more than 260 years, industrial hemp was a valuable crop and a major industry in Pennsylvania and other parts of the U.S.
Notable figures in our country’s earliest history encouraged growing hemp, from William Penn to George Washington, who grew it on his plantation at Mount Vernon.
Lancaster County was such a prime growing area for hemp beginning in the 1700s that Hempfield Township in the county was named after it.
Just as American attitudes have changed about marijuana, resistance to industrial hemp is fading. Research being conducted in 25 states is the result of the federal Farm Bill of 2014, which received bipartisan support and permitted state agricultural programs and higher education institutes to conduct industrial hemp research.
“The fact that this is happening at Rodale gives a stamp of integrity and authenticity to this pilot project concerning growing hemp,” Dennis Kucinich, the former Ohio senator and two-time presidential candidate, told the supporters at the Rodale Institute.
“This pilot project here at Rodale is going to produce information that hopefully will inform the rest of the country about the great potential that hemp has as an agricultural product.”
Colleen Keahy, executive director of Hemp Industries Association, a nonprofit trade group founded in 1994, called hemp a new agricultural commodity.
“There is so much we can do with this plant,” she said. “Each sector of the hemp industry is part of a huge web of economies that does not get realized – and all of it is based on a plant.”
At Rodale Institute, scientists will study industrial hemp as a cash or cover crop to control weeds and enhance soil health in organic agriculture.
The project is anticipated to cost $75,000 to $100,000 a year.
“We are not looking at industrial use as much as how farmers can incorporate it,” said Jeff Morgan, executive director of Rodale Institute.
Rodale’s mission since its founding by Bob Rodale 75 years ago is about “improving the health of soil which creates healthy people.”
Kris Nichols, research director at Rodale Institute, said there is little research on hemp, but the institute’s study has a lot of potential to increase scientists’ understanding of healthy soil.
Because hemp is a dense, leafy plant that grows quickly and up to 10 feet high, it may be useful to suppress weeds, instead of using salt-based and chemical pesticides and fertilizers which decimate the soil, Nichols said.
Elizabeth Kucinich, policy chair of the institute’s board of directors, who is married to Dennis Kucinich, said if hemp is used as part of crop rotation, it would not only boost soil health and the nutrients in food but help reduce climate change.
SEEKING MORE U.S.-MADE PRODUCTS
Commercial use of hemp likely will benefit as agricultural knowledge of the plant increases.
“Here we are, we have almost a $700 million market and almost 100 percent of that has been imported,” Steenstra said.
“We’ve got farmers in Canada, farmers in Europe, farmers all over the world that are growing this crop and they’re shipping it here to the United States. Now we are finally just beginning this breakthrough, and we’re starting to see American-made hemp products, but we need to see more of it.”
Some of those products were on display inside a renovated stone barn at the Rodale farm for Hemp Day attendees to see: hemp seeds, flakes and oils for salads and smoothies, chocolate and vanilla hemp milk, granola bars, shampoo and soap, T-shirts, rope, bricks, a briefcase and a car door interior made for BMW cars.
THERE MUST BE DEMAND
Representatives for Charlotte’s Web were among the manufacturers on hand to talk about their product, which comes in oil and pill form. Hemp is an important source for cannabinoids, or CBD, which have been used to treat a wide variety of conditions, such as inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Charlotte’s Web has received lot of media attention, especially after it was featured on CNN by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The oil was successfully used to treat 5-year-old Charlotte Figi, who has a severe form of epilepsy and suffered from more than 300 seizures a day.
Shawn Patrick House, founder and CEO, Lancaster Trading House Inc., Lancaster, which makes hemp pretzels called Hempzels, hemp mustard and hemp butter among other products, said while hemp will open new commercial opportunities, there’s no guarantee of success.
“You have to give the people what they want,” House said.
RELIANCE ON CANADA
John Roulac, CEO of Nutiva, of Richmond, Calif., said when he founded the company in 1999, it produced in its first year just 500 granola bars made with organic hemp seeds.
Nearly 20 years later, his business has expanded, he employs 115 people and he buys 25 million pounds of hemp seed to make a variety of products ranging from protein powder for smoothies to hemp salad oil it sells across the country to grocers such as Wegmans and Whole Foods.
Nutiva has done so well that it made Inc. magazine’s list of fastest-growing food companies five years in a row.
Because hemp is still illegal to grow in the U.S., Nutiva has to import all of its hemp seed from Canada, but, Roulac said, “I would love to source more locally.”
FOCUS ON FOOD
Advocates here said they still have work to do about reducing the confusion about hemp and the marijuana stigma to make it more mainstream.
“We need to keep educating people about [hemp] … but we’re very behind,” said Keahy of the Hemp Industries Association.
One of the things they can do is keep the focus on hemp as a food that has a place in grocery stores and in families’ pantries, she said.
As he sat down to enjoy a hemp slider and organic salad, Steenstra said he realized it might take a while before hemp becomes more accepted in America.
It’s probably comparable to how long it took soybeans to take hold after starting as a niche crop in the 1970s, Steenstra said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind we are going to see hemp as a major U.S. crop in 20-25 years.”