By Jean Lotus
Before the 80-year U.S. prohibition of marijuana and hemp, the hemp industry in Pennsylvania was one of the oldest in the United States. Hemp was grown in the colony ever since 1683, when William Penn and the General Assembly declared the plant one of the four staples of the colony.
For 260 years, industrial hemp was used for rigging, rope and sails in Philadelphia’s shipbuilding industry and was woven into Pennsylvania Dutch linen. Seeds were ground for oil and used for animal feed, according to the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council.
In more recent times, Pennsylvania was a hemp early adopter, as federal laws criminalizing industrial hemp started to break down after the 2014 Farm Bill.
The commonwealth’s legislature passed unanimous and bi-partisan pro-hemp legislation in a single session in 2016, two years before the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing hemp nationwide.
“The enthusiasm is still there, and we’re building out the market,” said Erica Stark, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based National Hemp Association.
“We really want to see the fiber and grain market take off and entice investment to see decorticators built in Pennsylvania,” Stark told Let’s Talk Hemp.
Today, Pennsylvania’s hemp industry is moving forward thanks to collaboration among farmers, entrepreneurs, researchers and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
“We’ve hit this nice stride in Pennsylvania with a balance of advocacy, research and entrepreneurship,” said Dr. Alyssa Collins, associate research professor at the Pennsylvania State University’s Extension Center, where a new hemp undergraduate program will include classes on industrial hemp.
“There’s a lot of excitement among our students around growing hemp. It’s the ‘gateway drug’ to an interest in plant sciences and STEM in general, we think,” Collins told Let’s Talk Hemp.
Hemp appeals to farmers in the commonwealth where the Rodale Institute pioneered methods of organic and regenerative farming.
Pennsylvania’s hemp farmers licensed about 40% less hemp acreage last year, and only grew about 1,000 acres, but there’s still an interest, Collins said.
“Pennsylvania farmers have always been pretty deft at maneuvering to another crop that brings in revenue. Pennsylvania farmers like to have options,” she said.
Local farmers include Amish farms that have been family-held for generations and probably grew during Pennsylvania’s early hemp history.
Pennsylvania is also home to one of the U.S. pioneers in hemp seed and oil production, Susquehanna Hemp Company, a small agribusiness that also produces canola and sunflower seed oils.
Growing hemp is Pennsylvania is great for crop rotation and as a versatile crop, said co-owner April Line.
“While we love a challenge, and our go with hemp has certainly been that, the most challenging and frustrating part of it is that we have a glut of raw hemp fiber, seed, flower, and distillate and minimal processing or manufacturing infrastructure,” Line emailed Let’s Talk Hemp.
“We are scaling way back this year to give the state some time to catch up,” she added.
Mold issues and overproduction that led to a glut of CBD hemp biomass in 2019 still have not soured farmers on the crop, Collins said.
“They’ll figure out a way to grow hemp if there’s a market for it. We have a baseline knowledge of what we’re doing with this crop,” she added.
“The farmers showed they could grow it, now it’s up to processors and investors to decide if they can process it and build a robust value chain. We have to tie them all together to make sense for everyone,” she said.
The state’s department of agriculture has announced multiple grants for hemp farmers, entrepreneurs and nonprofits. Most recently, the ag department announced $157,000 in grants for a hemp promotion and marketing program.
“Hemp is an opportunity to revolutionize the norm for everything from agricultural conservation practices to home building,” said Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, in a statement.
The network of the commonwealth’s hemp entrepreneurs is small and collaborates well, said Cameron McIntosh, founder of Allentown-based Americhanvre, a hempcrete building company.
“We know each other and talk to each other,” McIntosh said. “It’s a big state but we’re all open and helpful. A rising tide, and the boats, and all that,” he said.
Recently McIntosh and another hempcrete company, Coexist Build, partnered to build two structures in New York that used precast blocks and spray hempcrete to cut the curing time of walls in half.
Blandon, PA,-based Coexist Build founders Drew Oberholtzer and wife Anastasiya Konopitskaya received a $75,000 grant from the Department of Agriculture to build the hemp block manufacturing site, which can turn out 1,000 blocks a day, Oberholtzer said.
After 10 years in New York and three in Los Angeles, they find Pennsylvania’s collaborative hemp community helpful in building their business.
“Everyone’s just working together,” Oberholtzer told Let’s Talk Hemp. The location is low-cost and convenient to the northeast United States, he said.
“We’ve got the urban and rural possibility for infrastructure here,” he added.
New Castle, PA-based Nonprofit disability organization DON Services is going all in on hemp as part of an overall strategy to remodel and re-sell substandard housing to disabled clients.
DON is remodeling a house with hempcrete to “promote hemp building materials as part of the process to being ready for a decortication facility,” Lori Daytner of DON told Let’s Talk Hemp.
Film crews from PBS and New York’s Parsons School of Design will document the project this summer, she said. DON is partnering with Coexist to help document the project on film as well.
“Every state can do what we’re doing in the hemp industry. it just takes people who are really committed and willing to work together,” Daytner said.
“In Pennsylvania we have smaller cities and towns, and a mix of agriculture and manufacturing, and that feeds into how we approach things. That’s part of being a Pennsylvanian. It’s in our DNA,” Daytner added.
# # #
Jean Lotus is a Colorado-based award-winning journalist and hempreneur who writes about the American West and sustainable food and technologies.