My blog is dedicated to the exploration of industrial hemp in America including the rich history of all forms of cannabis, the evolving law and politics of hemp and marijuana, the many products made from cannabis and the capacity, real or imagined, of hemp to re-industrialize rural America and revitalize the American family farm.
Friday, June 2, 2017
First hemp seeds sown legally in Lehigh Valley in decades
Hemp seeds are sown legally for first time in decades. Hemp is being planted in a Saucon Valley field as part of 16 state-approved research projects aimed at studying industrial hemp.
It's just a field littered with dried cornstalks now, but in just a few weeks, a 3-acre plot in Upper Saucon Township should be covered with a thick layer of green not seen legally in more than 80 years.
Hemp, the no-nonsense cousin of marijuana, was planted there on Thursday as one of 16 state-approved research projects being launched to find out more about what state officials are calling "a promising and versatile crop with enormous market potential."
Lehigh University is involved in several of the projects, including in Upper Saucon, where it is partnering with the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council at a site that is being kept under wraps to avoid the curious. The Rodale Institute in Maxatawny Township, Berks County, is also working on one of the state's hemp projects and hopes to start planting next week.
For the Upper Saucon project, the hemp council has been navigating political hurdles and was on hand Thursday to do the planting. Lehigh researchers will use the fruits of the council's labor to study the plant's potential. Hemp fibers store electricity, which could be used for highly efficient batteries; the plant leaches heavy metals from soil, useful for decontaminating land; the fibers also have antibacterial properties with a wide range of uses.
Industrial hemp can grow up to 18 feet tall in 120 days and is estimated to have more than 25,000 uses. While the seed can be used for oils, the outer fiber casing can be dried, stripped off the plant and turned into rope, building materials, clothes, oil and paint. Hemp fiber can also be used to replace carbon fiber, a material used for everything from cars to hockey sticks.
Hemp seeds sown legally in Saucon Valley. Crop, currently a ‘controlled substance,’ is focus of several studies
"Hemp has the potential of being one of the largest revenue crops that they can grow," said Geoff Whaling, the president of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council. "The benefit of hemp is the entire crop can be used."
This won't be the first time hemp is grown in the Lehigh Valley. The plant had been sown in Pennsylvania since the early settlers arrived in the area, according to the council's website. While some of the state's first legislation was aimed at encouraging farmers to grow hemp, the plant became a casualty of a 1933 law aimed at banning marijuana. In 1970, the federal Controlled Substances Act classified all varieties of the Cannabis sativa plant as a Schedule 1 drug — alongside heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
While hemp and marijuana are related, they come from different species of the plant. Hemp has less than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive chemical that's present in marijuana, and smoking it wouldn't cause a high.
The pilot research program comes as state officials try to make sense of contradictory federal law. Whaling said the 2014 federal Farm Bill opened the door to hemp research, but didn't legalize the plant.
The seeds' journey from north of Ottawa, Ontario, to Upper Saucon shows the hurdles hemp researchers face. Whaling expected the seeds to arrive mid-May, but thanks to a Canadian holiday and permit mix-up, they arrived in Harrisburg this week.
To get the seeds to the Lehigh Valley, Whaling said, permits had to be obtained, as the seeds had to come from another country and go through an inspection process. The truck carrying them from Canada into the U.S. had to stop at the Thousand Islands border crossing.
But the hassles seem to be worth it.
"I'm elated," said Erica McBride, the secretary/treasurer of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council. "This means the beginning of a brand new industry, and the trials that go on this year are going to pave the way for the future."
Cameron McCoy, Lehigh's assistant vice president for economic engagement, said researcher Bryan Berger drove the school's interest in the hemp research.
He also sees opportunities for the university to work with people in the industry who want to build on industrial hemp research.
"It's really a material science question and engineering question for us, where we've got some particular expertise that lends itself to this newly rekindled industry," McCoy said. "There are a significant number of research questions that are there."
Questions include what impact hemp oil has on steel structures and whether hempcrete, a material made of hemp and lime, can replace concrete.
The Rodale Institute research will evaluate potential benefits of industrial hemp both as a cash crop and as a tool for weed control and soil health.
"We were sort of looking at exploring some different crops we could put into the crop rotation that would really be able to help us either acting as a cover crop or cover/cash crop," said Kris Nichols, the chief scientist at Rodale. "It will help with management so we won't have to use synthetic herbicides, but also can be used to enhance soil health."
She said hemp was on Rodale's radar before the state-sanctioned research projects, so being allowed to plant it was a boon.
She said hemp had been an important part of the crop rotation system in Pennsylvania before it was banned.
"The other thing you're looking for in ideal crops is something that's adapted or can be readily adapted to your growing environment," she said. "Hemp fits into that very, very well."
1683: Two years after William Penn founded Pennsylvania, the General Assembly passes "an act for the encouraging of raising hemp in Pennsylvania."
1685: Penn predicts hemp would be a trade staple for the state.
1700s: George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson grow hemp.
1720-1870: Lancaster County alone has more than 100 mills for processing hemp fiber, with hundreds throughout the state.
Mid-1800s: Invention of the cotton gin and wood pulp products cause production to slow.
1937: Marihuana Tax Act passes, requiring growers to register hemp crops and creating an expensive tax stamp.
1970: Federal Controlled Substances Act classifies the entire Cannabis sativa L. plant as an illegal drug, making hemp cultivation virtually impossible.