HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania took big step toward expanding the production of hemp as a farm product this week, announcing rules to allow commercial growers to raise the product.
Hemp had long been banned because of its association with marijuana, even though industrial hemp lacks the chemical compounds that make marijuana users high.
Proponents say there are thousands of uses for the product. Among the many possibilities, hemp fibers can be used for textiles and clothes, according to the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council. Hemp pulp is used for fiberboard, insulation and animal bedding. Hempseed oil is used for salad oil, paints and varnishes, soap and shampoo.
“Pennsylvania’s story is shaped by agriculture and the products that help grow the commonwealth, and industrial hemp presents an exciting new chapter in that story,” Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said in a statement about the new rules.
The strategy was unveiled Tuesday in the wake of the 2018 Farm Bill, which ended the federal ban on growing hemp as a farm product. The Pennsylvania move will get rid of limits on how many acres of hemp a farm can produce. Pennsylvania is just the second state to notify the federal government of its updated plan for allowing hemp production.
“The changes just made by the Department of Agriculture are tremendous,” said Erica McBride Stark, executive director of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council, a trade group representing growers.
Under the state’s old plan, hemp growing was limited to products for use in research.
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. Additionally, there will not be a cap on the number of applications accepted for 2019.
The state doesn't plan to reveal the identities of the 84 growers approved for hemp production until Feb. 1 when their contracts have been signed, said Shannon Powers, an agriculture department spokeswoman.
The 84 approved applications will be finalized first; additional applications will be reviewed and processed on a first come, first serve basis.
While the Farm Bill ended the federal ban, growing rules are set by each state, Stark said. As a result, only Pennsylvania and Kentucky have submitted plans to the federal government explaining how commercial growing of hemp will be regulated.
Forty-one states have passed legislation relating to hemp production, Stark said. Many of them limit that production to the kind of research program Pennsylvania had before this week’s rule change. Ohio and New Jersey are among the states that have no state laws allowing for hemp production, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Stark said while industry advocates tout many uses for hemp, the industry is so new, it’s not clear how quickly markets will be in place to buy hemp grown by farmers.
As a result, she’s been telling farmers that if they want to begin growing hemp, they should start small. That way, they learn to deal with the crop so when there is demand for the product, they will be prepared to ratchet up production, she said.
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.