Nestled on a 330-acre farm outside Allentown, Pennsylvania, some of the state’s first hemp seeds in 80 years wait to be planted.
The seeds originated in Canada and Italy but traveled from Poland to the Rodale Institute in Maxatawny Township. Their journey was as cumbersome as the federal laws restricting the plant.
Hemp is a member of the cannabis sativa family. Unlike its more famous sister, marijuana, hemp only contains trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and does not produce euphoria. Instead, hemp has historically been used in farming, manufacturing and cooking.
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Its familial relations have not done the plant any favors. Once considered a cornerstone of agriculture in Pennsylvania, hemp was outlawed in the 1970s under the Controlled Substance Act. The Drug Enforcement Administration still considers it a controlled substance.
Rodale Institute is hoping to change that. Researchers here are testing how hemp can be used to improve soil and, by extension, crops without the use of pesticides.
“[We] have always held hemp at arm's length,” said Rodale Institute executive director Jeff Moyer, referring to the stigma of anything cannabis-related.
But as consumers increasingly demand organic alternatives, hemp could provide a supplement to traditional farming.
“Hemp is a crop that has been on the radar of research scientists for a very long time,” said Rodale chief scientist Dr. Kristine Nichols, a former Department of Agriculture employee.
“We have struggled with the fact that we haven’t been able to incorporate it into research because it has a lot of capability for us to enhance our … production.”
At the core of Rodale’s research is the potential of improving soil health and better managing pesky weeds. No, not that kind of weed. Ragweed and hogweed, in particular, can ruin crops and become difficult to control.
Cleaner soil could also mean cleaner run-off, an environmental concern that is often overshadowed by a focus on carbon emissions.
“This is a movement toward sustainability, to improving our economy, to making sure that our farmers are supported in their efforts to grow this product without having the hammer of the DEA come down on them,” said former Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, whose wife is on the board of Rodale.
“This is about an industry and it has nothing to do with drugs, so let’s suspend the misconceptions and go right for the potential that hemp products have.”
Hemp’s history in Pennsylvania dates back to the Founding Fathers. Hempfield Township in Lancaster County was founded in 1729 and named after the plant that flourished there. More than 100 water-powered mills processed hemp in the county, with dozens more other parts of the state, according to the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council (PHIC).
Even before the state was created, William Penn foresaw an abundant agricultural future involving hemp. One of the first laws passed by Pennsylvania's General Assembly in 1683 “was a law to encourage every farmer to grow” the plant, PHIC said.
“From 1681 until around 1840, the culture of hemp was nearly universal in Pennsylvania,” according to PHIC. It was used to make linen, rope and twine, but also crucial in ship-building. Each maritime endeavor required roughly 60 to 100 tons of hemp for anchor cables and sails. More recently, BMW incorporated hemp into their 3 series door panel. Because it is lighter than fiberglass, the car weighs less. It also performed better in crash tests and can be recycled.
Other countries have already adopted hemp cultivation and manufacturing. Canada is considered a leader in hemp cultivation while Slovenia is making hemp skateboards. Meanwhile, scientists in Ukraine are experimenting with hemp to help regenerate soil in nuclear Chernobyl.
In the United States, hemp has been maligned for decades. But a provision in the 2014 Farm Bill allowed the plant to return to Pennsylvania for research purposes. It was buoyed by Berks County Democrat State Sen. Judy Schwank and State. Rep. Eric Nelson, who argued that hemp could be used to supplement coal mining and other industrial and agricultural jobs.
“Pennsylvania is a baby-step state,” he said at the World Medical Marijuana Conference in April. “This isn’t about dopers. It’s about farmers.”
At Rodale, hemp could hold the key to healthier crops, researchers said.
“Using hemp in a crop rotation, we believe, will improve the microbiology of the soil, it will improve the weed management strategies… and ultimately make people more healthy,” Moyer said.
Rodale was awarded two of the state’s 16 industrial hemp licenses, which limits farmers to just five acres of crops. While the local licenses opened the door to research, federal regulations hamstrung the project and delayed it by several months. Anyone working with the seed underwent thorough background checks, police clearances and even FBI fingerprinting.
The institute’s four-year project is part of the Department of Agriculture's Industrial Hemp Pilot Project focusing on low-THC plants to address pest issues and enhance soil health.