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 Natural Awakenings Lancaster-Berks

Pennsylvania Returns to a Strong Foundational Crop

Photo: Rodale Institute

The Reemergence of Local Hemp Production

by Gisele M. Siebold

Fields of hemp once stretched across the landscape of Pennsylvania for more than 260 years and created a steady source of income for many farmers and their families. The strong fibers from the hemp plant’s core and bark proved to be versatile and were used to make clothing, sails, rope, cloth, paper and more. Penn State Extension Educator Jeffrey S. Graybill draws our attention to the fact, “The Declaration of Independence was printed on hemp paper. The sails of ships, like the USS Constitution, and the covers for the Conestoga wagons were all made from hemp fiber.”

According to Les Stark, hemp historian, founding member of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council and author of Hempstone Heritage, historical records indicate the operation of more than 100 water-powered, hemp-processing mills in Lancaster County alone, with hundreds more located throughout the state. Stark also confirms that Hempfield Township, Lancaster County, was formed in 1729, named for the “vast quantities of hemp raised there.” Hemp seed oil mills were also in operation to process hemp seed into oil that was used to make inks, paints, varnishes and lamp oil.

Hemp is a strain of the Cannabis sativa plant that has a very low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content. Unfortunately, it became linked with the high-THC content variety specifically cultivated to produce marijuana for its narcotic components. This caused the growth and production of hemp to be banned in the U.S. in the late 1930s, with the exception of hemp fiber production during World War II. Decades later, research found THC to be the cannabinoid component that, in very high doses, causes intoxicating, psychoactive effects in humans, but hemp production had already been halted in the U.S.

The 2014 Farm Bill made hemp production legal again in programs for research purposes, while scientific and educational findings have recently brought hemp production to the forefront for its many industrial, farming, health and wellness benefits. The 2018 Farm Bill allows hemp to be grown commercially outside of a research pilot program. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, caps on the number of hemp permits and amount of acreage per permit were removed in 2019, and the department issued 324 growing permits for farms that planted just over 4,000 acres of hemp. In 2020, the department is committed to fostering the conditions for Pennsylvanians to grow a profitable, sustainable in-demand hemp product.

The team at Rodale Institute, in Kutztown, is exploring hemp’s potential to suppress weeds, add diversity to crop rotations and boost farmers’ bottom lines by conducting an industrial variety trial and a weed competition trial as part of a four-year research project, which is now in its fourth year. They think hemp enhances soil health as a cover crop by shading out weeds—reducing the need for synthetic herbicides—and adding diversity to crop rotations. So far, their research has shown that industrial hemp is a resilient plant that grows very quickly and performs just as well if not better than other cover crops. Their research will continue through the end of the year.

The Rodale Institute team believes that hemp is also versatile in the marketplace, with thousands of uses for its seed, oil and fiber. Hemp can be used to make textiles, building material, livestock bedding, paper products, bioplastics and more. It is stronger and more durable than cotton, yet requires less space and less water to grow. Hemp’s desirability means that successfully cultivating it can also improve the livelihoods of organic farmers.

Local farmer, designer and consultant Steve Groff created Hemp Innovators, a community and network of farmers and professionals navigating the hemp industry together. Groff and John Stoltzfus, Jr., two of six partners in Keystone Agri-Science, concur with improving the livelihoods of farmers. They are part of a group of businessmen and farmers collectively supporting approximately 80 farmers that have transitioned to farming hemp for cannabidiol (CBD) production.

Keystone Agri-Science provides a viable crop option for farmers to assist in debt reduction and creates new jobs and opportunities for education, support, group meetings, problem-solving and brainstorming. They purchase most of the hemp flowers grown by the collective (although the farmers are free to sell elsewhere), and use them for CBD. They developed Lancaster County Brand and Hanf (German for hemp), two CBD companies for wholesale and retail business offering CBD salves, tinctures, body lotion, massage oil and other products.

CBD, the most abundant cannabinoid found in hemp, has therapeutic applications. Heather Kreider, CEO of Lancaster-based Hempfield Botanicals, says “CBD is an example of a phytocannabinoid, a plant-produced cannabinoid. The human body also produces endocannabinoids on its own. They help support the endocannabinoid system, recognized for its role in regulating immune system functions, inflammatory response, blood sugar, body temperature, hormones, stress response, sleep, mood and emotions, metabolism and more.

“When our endocannabinoid system is deficient or compromised in some way, we can experience a variety of unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms that might prevent us from doing the things we love to do and enjoying life to its fullest,” explains Kreider. “CBD from hemp may help support our endocannabinoid system by imitating endocannabinoids to keep cannabinoid receptors working optimally.”

Hemp hearts (shelled hemp seeds) contain all nine essential amino acids, and are a healthy, plant-based source of protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Their nutritional benefits support heart and brain health, as well as the immune system, and help to reduce inflammation. The nutritional content and omega-3 fatty acids in hemp oil make it another healthy choice when creating recipes and boosting meal preparation variety. It may also beneficially contribute to skin care and massage therapy regimens.

Recognized across the world for its strength and versatility, hemp is a beneficial crop to regard as we look to enhance our healthy, sustainable lifestyles and wellness journeys with plant-based components.

For more information:

Hempfield Botanicals, 717-874-8480,

Hemp Innovators,

Penn State Extension,

Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council,

Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture,

Rodale Institute, 610-683-1400,

Steve Groff, 717-575-6778,