Experimental hemp crop thriving in Pennsylvania

Industrial hemp grown in Perry County, Pennsylvania. (WHTM)

NEWPORT, Pa. (WHTM) — The first legal hemp seeds planted in Perry County, Pennsylvania soil in 80 years are growing steadily into hearty plants.

The five-acre crop of industrial hemp planted in Juniata Township on June 7 has exceeded expectations. Landowners Bill and Martha Roberts were recipients of one of just 16 research permits granted by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculturethis year.

“We’re pleased with how thick it is out across here,” said Jay Elsessor, a farm manager overseeing the hemp plot for Roberts’ business, Perry County Land & Cattle Company. “I guess it was a lucky year to get picked to do a hemp research project. We were just very fortunate with the way we had raindrops fall all through June. Even in July, we’ve had an exceptional amount of rain.”

Elsessor says after applying the seeds, purchased from Canada, the hemp germinated in just four days. The variety of industrial hemp being grown will only grow to about five feet tall so that it can be harvested using standard farm equipment. An application of a natural fertilizer shortly after germination kept the crop chemical-free. The research at the Perry County farm will include harvesting the hemp seeds, pressing out the oil, and then use the remaining “seed cake” to supplement the diets of several head of grass-fed beef cattle.

On Thursday, Elsesser and the Roberts’ will travel to State College to learn about Penn State University’s industrial hemp research project. Part of the trip will include meeting with Canadian hemp growers, who should be able to answer the many questions Pennsylvania’s first-time research growers have.

“We’re not sure why some of the plants look different than others,” Elsesser said. “We think it’s a male and female situation. I am by no means an industrial hemp genius, but it’s exciting to be learning about it and being part of the research.”

While the seed cake will be fully utilized for research, Elsesser says there are no clear plans for what other parts of the hemp plants will be used for. Certain uses will require permission from the state, but possibilities include collecting the hemp seed oil, which can be used in cosmetics and cooking. The fibrous stalk of the industrial hemp plant, which can be used to manufacture paper, clothing and concrete, will likely be ground up and used as a bedding for the Roberts’ herd of black angus.

“Everyone has been extremely interested and supportive,” Elsesser said, referring to comments he’s received from local people who’ve heard about the research plot. “It’s all been positive. I just have to keep repeating that this is not medical marijuana. You can’t use this plant to smoke, and if you did, it wouldn’t do a thing for you.”

Industrial hemp looks identical to the form of cannabis that can produce a high, but it contains only trace amounts of THC. Still, commercial hemp remains illegal in the United States, classified as a Schedule 1 Narcotic alongside LSD and Heroin. Measures have been taken to protect the research plot from trespassing and theft.

According to Elsesser, the industrial hemp plants should reach full maturity by early September.

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