Researchers and growers from six counties extending from Monroe to Bucks are among 39 applicants across the state who want to participate this year in Pennsylvania's industrial hemp research program.
This is the second year of the pilot program, which was launched after Gov. Tom Wolf signed a law in 2016 that allows industrial hemp to be grown for research purposes.
One of the purposes of the legislation is to explore the potential economic growth that hemp could bring to Pennsylvania.
Hemp, a $600 million industry in the United States, is used in thousands of products, including textiles, paper, foods, beverages, automotive interiors and nutritional supplements.
But as a variety of the same species of plant that marijuana comes from, hemp nearly disappeared from the landscape since it became regulated in the 1950s. Unlike marijuana, hemp has little to none of the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
“Allowing research was a good first step, but the potential of this crop warrants the federal government allowing more extensive production,” state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said.
“Legitimizing industrial hemp will give entrepreneurs the assurance they need to invest in this industry,” Redding said.
Last year, Rodale Institute in Maxatawny Township and Lehigh University were among 14 research institutions and growers that participated in the pilot program. The state expanded the program in December to allow up to 50 growers to plant up to 100 acres each.
If all 39 applicants complete the permitting process, nearly 1,000 acres of hemp will be growing this spring, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
Researchers at Rodale Institute’s experimental organic farm are involved in a four-year study on how hemp affects soil health and weed control.
Diana Martin, director of communications at Rodale Institute, said the project is going well, despite getting the hemp seed planted in the ground later than it wanted because of the regulatory hurdles needed to clear to obtain the seed.
“We’re hoping this year the process gets jump-started and some of those kinks are worked out and we’ll have a little bit longer growing season,” Martin said.
Rodale researchers are growing several varieties of hemp plants to see which grows well here, she said.
“The other trial we are probably more excited about is the weed suppression trial,” Martin said.
In that experiment, Rodale researchers are studying hemp, which is a tall, leafy plant, as a natural suppressant to weeds. Hemp could become a viable cover crop for farmers to plant instead of using herbicides to kill weeds.
Hemp could help prevent soil erosion, and farmers would not have to add nitrogen to the soil, which then washes into waterways, Martin said.
Acknowledging Pennsylvania’s long history with hemp, which dates to colonial times, Redding said it has found “new life in the commonwealth” and has “tremendous economic development potential.”
Thirty-nine applicants in 25 counties across the state have been approved to study hemp. The number of applicants in this region: