Potential producers of industrial hemp can get their feet in the door.
Applications are now being accepted for the reopened 2019 growing season of the product, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
“Growers in Schuylkill County can apply for this research, and we would see it grown here. I am aware of a few growers interested, but I do not know if anyone actually applied,” Tanner C. Delvalle, horticulture extension educator for Schuylkill and Berks counties, Penn State Extension in Pottsville, said Tuesday.
State Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding on Tuesday announced that the state has submitted its plan for industrial hemp to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and will reopen the 2019 program to include applications for commercial growing operations.
Industrial hemp and marijuana are different varieties of the same species of plant.
“Unlike marijuana, industrial hemp is grown mainly for fiber and seed and must maintain a much lower concentration of the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, below the 0.3 percent legal threshold,” the state Department of Agriculture said in a news release.
Alyssa A. Collins, Ph.D., director of the Southeast Agricultural Research & Extension Center, and an assistant professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology at Penn State University, said there is some evidence that hemp might be able to grow in soil that isn’t the best for most crops.
“If that’s the case, then areas of Pennsylvania like Schuylkill County, which haven’t been as active in agriculture as other areas of the state, may find that this crop is economical for them to grow in a way that others have not been,” Collins said. “This could open new opportunity for these farmers, even now when many in ag are struggling due to depressed dairy prices, trade wars and climate challenges.”
Collins is also the director of a Penn State research farm in Lancaster County that has been involved with growing hemp for research trials, according to Dwane L. Miller, agricultural extension educator for Penn State Extension, Pottsville.
Miller said he was unaware of a Schuylkill County farm raising industrial hemp, and directed inquiries about its production to Collins.
One of the things that the announcement now allows for is growth of unlimited acreage, and for commercial purposes instead of limiting it to research projects, according to Collins.
“With a much larger acreage permitted to be grown in the commonwealth, we can now attract fiber and seed processors to the state. Having processors to sell to will make it worthwhile for certain growers to ‘jump into the pool,’ where they may have been hesitating before,” she said.
While Collins hasn’t heard directly from any Schuylkill County growers, she regularly gets calls from people from throughout the state and country who are interested in starting the crop.
“Many are farmers of other crops, some are non-farmers who are exploring the possibility. All of these folks have really insightful questions about the crop, policy, processing, and market chain,” she said.
Tangles and weeds
Lessons learned on the Lancaster hemp plot are being shared.
“Our primary challenges reflect what I believe many farmers will struggle, or have struggled, with, namely weed management. There are no herbicide options for this crop yet, and so for farmers like us, who would like to avoid tilling to control weeds — so we can farm more sustainably — there are not good ways of suppressing weeds so that the hemp can outgrow them,” Collins said.
Another real dilemma is that producers don’t currently have efficient harvesting equipment for hemp.
“Farmers have been repurposing equipment used for other crops to harvest seed and fiber hemp varieties, but these machines are better suited to less-fibrous plants and tend to get tangled,” Collins said.
Producers also need to find a buyer for the crop. Hemp grown for fiber needs to be processed to break it down into usable fibers. Currently, there are no processing plants in Pennsylvania, and shipping a crop out of state is cost prohibitive, she said.
Redding said the passage and signing of the 2018 Farm Bill, particularly the language removing industrial hemp from regulation under the Controlled Substance Act and providing for commercial production of industrial hemp, are welcome changes that will benefit both Pennsylvania producers and consumers.
On Tuesday, the state Department of Agriculture approved 84 permit applications for commercial growing operations.
“Acreage caps — previously set at 100 acres — have been lifted for the 84 approved applicants and acreage will no longer be restricted under the new program,” the news release from the department states.
“Additionally, there will not be a cap on the number of applications accepted for 2019. The 84 approved applications will be finalized first; additional applications will be reviewed and processed on a first come, first serve basis.”
Applicants are required to submit fingerprints to the FBI to obtain a criminal history check, proof of which must be attached to the paperwork. The growing sites must be in Pennsylvania, and a single GPS point at the entrance to the growing locations must be included.
Application forms can be found at www.agriculture.pa.gov/Plants_Land_Water/industrial
For additional data on hemp production, visit https://extension
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