Although there’s been a rise in those growing hemp for CBD, the crop has become increasingly popular over the past four years for grain and fiber. Farmers interested in growing (or already growing) hemp for grain and fiber face numerous challenges that are just now being addressed.

The Pennsylvania Hemp Summit, held recently in Harrisburg, PA, drew farmers, investors, hemp processors and legislators who were interested in learning more about hemp and hemp products. The event, co-hosted by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and Team PA, opened with an address by Ag Secretary Russell Redding. Redding noted that like with other crops, growers enter the industry with a long view. “It’s a prerequisite for what we do in agriculture,” he said. “Changing the hearts and minds of folks around hemp is part of that long view.”

In the opening address, Ken Elliot, co-founder and president of IND HEMP in Montana, discussed the importance of hemp exemption in the upcoming Farm Bill. Although the 2018 Farm Bill allowed for legal hemp production, all hemp grown for CBD, fiber and grain is subject to THC testing. This regulation has resulted in cumbersome management for those who grow for grain and fiber. The products that result from such crops are exempt from the Controlled Substances Act, and supporters believe that farmers are unnecessarily burdened with background checks, sampling and testing.

The Grain and Fiber Hemp Exemption proposal would remove many challenges for grain and fiber growers. The proposal includes requiring a signed declaration that anyone growing hemp for grain or fiber will not harvest or sell floral material (buds) or extract resin from crops, although full use of hemp seed/grain would be authorized. The proposal would also eliminate background checks, crop testing for THC, further efforts toward domestic infrastructure development, increased acreage of hemp grain and fiber crops grown in rotation with other crops and access to new markets.

A selection of speakers addressed the audience and legislators interested in promoting hemp for grain and fiber. Dr. Raj Kasula, DVM, chief nutrition officer of Wenger Feeds, discussed the use of hemp seed meal as a feed ingredient for poultry. Kasula has done extensive research on poultry diets that include hempseed cake and found no residual cannabinoids in eggs, blood, liver, breast meat or body fat of chickens.

David Cook, owner of Tuscarora Mills, introduced the audience to the challenges he has faced in creating hemp textiles. “As a licensed PA hemp farmer, I’ve faced challenges in where to buy seeds, which cover crops are best for hemp, when to sow and the challenges of the 0.3% THC limit prior to harvest,” said Cook, adding there is a lack of processing and a shortage of buyers for textile fiber in Pennsylvania and nationwide. “I’ve learned that from one plant, Cannabis sativa, four groups of materials are derived: seed, feed and food; fiber for wovens, non-wovens and composites; cellulose for industrial material; and flower for medicine. I’ve discovered that each material group has its own unique genetics for growing, harvest and processing methods necessary to achieve the desired end-use specifications and products dictated by specific markets and individual buyers.”

Cameron McIntosh, owner of Americhanvre Cast Hemp, describes hempcrete as “something like concrete but it isn’t.” “It’s a non-structural insulation walling material that takes the place of everything in a traditional wall frame except for the frame,” he said. “To date, we’ve imported over 600,000 pounds of hemp hurd (the coarse, woody portion of the plant) for construction from France. We’ve installed over 18,000 cubic feet of hempcrete in residential homes from Virginia to Vermont and beyond.”

Vice President of Program Development for Disability Options Network (DON) Lori Daytner explained the organization’s work with hemp as a building material. DON acquires homes slated for demolition and builds new, accessible and affordable homes, and Daytner said hemp is the ideal material for such work. “This fiber is the new soybeans,” she said. “In the area we work, production is split between corn and beans. In the area, a lot of dairy farmers are struggling, and a lot of farmers who grow corn and beans are struggling. We want to do something for our agricultural neighbors.” Daytner also said the lack of processing facilities is the key bottleneck to helping crop farmers thrive with hemp production.

The legislators in attendance showed interest in hemp production and were eager to learn more about hemp production and potential legislation that would benefit growers. Pennsylvania State Sen. Judy Schwank explained that she and others started to write legislation to allow the use of hemp seed for animal feed but are still collecting research results.

Schwank also asked about the difference between the FDA and state regulations. Elliot explained that the FDA process can take years, adding that no other crop growers have had to deal with the stigma of THC. “The federal government is not designed to take care of the individual,” he said. “The state is. The neat thing about hemp is that it’s apolitical. This is where the states shine.”

Eden Binega, engineering student and Ph.D. candidate at Penn State, is working on a project to determine the feasibility of hempcrete for residential construction. Photo by Sally Colby

A poster session highlighted the work of young students interested in expanding the use of hemp. Ashley Clark, a second-year textiles major at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, discussed her work with developing hemp composite material. Eden Binega, a Ph.D. candidate in engineering at Penn State, is working on carbon-negative hempcrete to build environmentally friendly houses. Students at Delaware Valley University are working on developing a line of hemp seed with the goal of producing dual purpose seed (for fiber and grain) under limited input field conditions and hydroponic production.

A group discussion focused on the challenges faced by those interested in hemp production. Barriers mentioned included disease resistance in available seed, processing facilities, FDA guidance, funding for research projects, improved testing for better consistency and allowing for crop variability and differences in states’ laws for growers who want to ship for processing.

“We have an industry that can go far beyond what we envision today,” said one group participant. “The limitation right now is the perception of the law. The law has been written to be specific, yet the plant doesn’t follow the law. If legislators could give us a window [for THC level], research and technology could help the small farmer stay within the window.”

Country Folks Grower was a proud co-sponsor of the Pennsylvania Hemp Summit.

by Sally Colby