Exploring potential of new crop
Hemp researched for viability, uses in Pennsylvania
McCLURE — Imagine looking to build a home 50 years from now. What kind of materials do you think will be used for building materials? Did materials made from hemp cross your mind?
The hemp plant, like its sister the marijuana plant, is not a new crop to the country. In fact, according to the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council it has been around for thousands of years, but the plants are different.
Hemp vs. Marijuana
Hemp and marijuana are not the same, even though they both come from Cannabis sativa L., said Justin Frederico, of JustBen Agriculture LLC.
“Hemp is a durable plant that can be used in thousands of different ways, and the whole plant can be harvested in used,” he explained.
The varieties used to make hemp products — seed, fiber, etc — and those used to make marijuana — flowering tops and leaves — are distinctly different, according to the National Hemp Association.
But what exactly is that distinct difference?
According to the National Hemp Association, hemp is the plant called ‘cannabis sativa, which means ‘useful hemp.’ It is a durable plant that has a history of many uses — most commonly, fiber where the plant can be made into rope or twine. Frederico’s business partner, Ben Hall, said he lost track of all the uses.
“I counted hundreds of uses before I just stopped because it is so helpful,” he said.
The hemp plant can also only have a certain amount of THC, the element in marijuana that allows the person to experience the “high.” Hemp plants can have no more than a 0.3 percent trace of THC.
“Basically, you can’t get high from the plant,” Frederico said.
Legislation and the farm
In 2014, the U.S. government passed the 2014 Farm Bill, which allowed the growing of hemp for pilot programs or for research. Frederico said in July 2016, Pennsylvania enacted Act 92 which allowed the research of the plant for economic potential and what the plant could offer the commonwealth.
“With all of its uses it could be an asset to the state,” he explained.
Frederico and Hall, whose farm is on the Mifflin and Snyder county line, was one of 16 research proposals accepted to demonstrate the value and viability of industrial hemp, they said.
Haul had the farm land and Frederico had the $3,000 to apply for the license through the pilot program, which was launched in December 2016.
“We have been friends for a long time and both had an interest,” Hall said.
JustBen Agriculture is an early-stage hemp farm focused on researching hemp as food and fiber. JustBen anticipates planting, growing, cultivating and harvesting industrial hemp seed, food and fiber. As per the state Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program the pair has a five-acre field. Frederico said they planted four different varieties of the hemp plant.
“We wanted to see which ones would do well in the clay soil,” he explained during a farm tour. “We hit some snags, but we learned for next year.”
One example he gave is the seeds had to go through an extensive approval process before being sent to the farm and Hall said they came late.
“You should try to plant before June, we got our seeds and only planted on June 1,” he explained. “But if you look at our plants, you wouldn’t know.”
The seeds they bought came from Canada, Frederico said.
Currently the farm works with Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences for the research, along with Frederico’s own chemistry lab outside of Philadelphia, test the plants for the nutritional and quality of the plant. Frederico said his goal is to not only use the seeds for food, but be able to process the entire plant.
“I wanted to look toward the future,” he explained.
The seeds he and Hall purchased are similar to the seeds he processes to sell for food.
“We can buy seeds and sell what we make from them, but not from our license,” he explained. “We can only use our plants for research.”
Like Hall had said, there are thousands of uses for the hemp plant and according to Erica McBride, of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry council some products are already being used.
“Building materials, some plastic components, biofuels and food, the list goes on and on,” she explained during a seminar on Hemp’s potential in Pennsylvania during Penn State Ag Progress Days.
She said in Europe, hemp is being used in materials for homes and car parts.
According to the National Hemp Association, in 1941 Henry Ford created a plastic car which ran on hemp and other plant-based fuels and the fenders were made of hemp and other materials.
“We have found that anything made from wood can be made from hemp as well,” McBride explained.
Frederico said clothes, including Levi Jeans used to be made from hemp. McBride said it would only get better by wearing the clothes and washing it.
“Clothes lasted longer because the fiber was stronger since the hemp is stronger,” she explained.
Basically, McBride said there are more uses for the plant than the industry knows. However, she said, industry leaders know one thing.
“What we’re doing now to produce products is not sustainable,” McBride said. “We think this could make more products more sustainable and more environmentally friendly.”
She also said since the entire plant can be used, it is a high-yield crop.
“It could also serve as a cash crop for some farms,” she explained.
Frederico and McBride both said right now the future of the hemp industry in Pennsylvania is status quo. However, both would like to see Pennsylvania expand the industry.
“(Pennsylvania) could get left behind if it doesn’t expand the industry,” McBride said. “This could leave the state behind it its ability to profit off the plant.”
Frederico said he would like to see the licensing fee last for more than three years and to expand on what farmers can do with it.
“$3,000 is a lot,” he said. “It is hard to turn a profit since we (farmers) can’t sell or manufacture our own plants.”
He also noted there is interest, but the fee and uncertainty hold farmers back.
“I would like to see a license that allows for more acreage and allows the licensed farm to allow other farmers to plant,” he said. “They would be sub-farms under the main farm and wouldn’t have to pay the large fee.”
McBride said she sees a lot of interest in the idea, but lack of outlets for manufacturing are problematic and making farmers hesitant.
“If we, as a state and nation, can get more processing facilities and expand the programs then more farmers will want to participate,” she said. “But right now, we are glad to have a program supported by the state and the (U.S. Department of Agriculture).”