Could the 2018 Farm Bill restore York County's hemp heritage?

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Hemp fiber in a 1994 file image. (Geraldine Wilkins/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

York County, like many others in the state, has a long, lucrative history with hemp, a fibrous material from the cannabis plant that has thousands of uses. 

For more than eight decades, the state has gone without the economic benefits of the industry. But with the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill earlier this month, some say the county may once again solidify itself as a hotbed for hemp.

The bill, which the U.S. Senate approved Wednesday, Dec. 12, will provide $867 billion in relief for farmers and legalize the industrial growth and cultivation of hemp nationwide.

President Donald Trump signed the bill into law, and the state's Department of Agriculture is "tremendously excited," said spokeswoman Shannon Powers, adding the state "will absolutely" reap financial benefits from the measure.

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Hemp history: Hemp has historically been used for up to 25,000 different commercial products, including textiles, furniture, automobiles, food and beverages and more, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Hemp had been a vital and lucrative industry throughout the state since the late 17th century, and Lancaster County was one of the largest hemp producers in the nation.

But York County also played a notable role in the industry, according to the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council, a hemp advocacy group.

The production of hemp eventually faced a decline as wool and tobacco gained popularity, but in 1907 Hanover participated in an attempt to revitalize the industry, mostly producing hemp for the Hanover Cordage Co.

Hemp, although derived from the marijuana plant, contains minuscule amounts — less than 0.3 percent — of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive drug that gives users a high. 

But it was still targeted just three decades later in 1937, when Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which made it nearly impossible to grow industrial hemp by slapping excessive taxes on marijuana and later criminalizing both in totality.

Fast-track to 2014, when Congress passed the 2014 Omnibus Farm Bill, which permitted states to issue research permits for farmers to cultivate and research hemp legally and was dubbed a victory by hemp advocates.

Gov. Tom Wolf takes the stage to give a victory speech during the campaign's Election Night Party at the Bond in York City Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Wolf defeated challenger Scott Wagner to win a second term. Bill Kalina photo

Modern hemp in Pennsylvania: Gov. Tom Wolf in 2016 signed the Industrial Hemp Research Act, which led to the PDA's Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program opening in 2017.

Through such pilots alone, in 2017 the nationwide retail value of hemp sales was estimated to be $820 million, according to Vote Hemp, one of the largest hemp advocacy groups in the country.

The state's research pilot program allows meticulous research by handpicked entities, none of which are currently in York County, but it also faces its fair share of setbacks because of the legal status of the product, said DPA spokeswoman Shannon Powers.

Prior to the Farm Bill, those interested in growing and researching the product had to import hemp from outside the country, Powers said.

The Drug Enforcement Agency also cracked down on the travel of seed and plant product, making it hard for those involved in the pilot to obtain and transport the material.

But that will change, Powers said, as once the bill was signed, the DEA was to back off the transportation of the product.

Wolf celebrated the passing of the bill in a Thursday, Dec. 13, news release, calling it "critical to ensuring that the agriculture industry and all who depend on it have access to programs, supports and services needed to continue options."

The news release also gives a nod to the legalization of hemp, adding it allows states to "create programs for the cultivation of hemp for commercial purposes."

Hesitancy among advocates: But PHIC President Geoffrey Whaling, who is also the chairman of the National Hemp Association, is hesitant to start celebrating.

Whaling, who worked hand-in-hand with congressional party leadership to get the hemp act in the bill, emphasized the legislation only gives states the foundation to expand their industrial cultivation of hemp, and nothing is guaranteed.

"(Progress) is going to be really contingent upon how (PDA Secretary Russel) Redding and the governor interpret the legislation and implement it," he said. "Pennsylvania right now appears to have decided they're going to adhere to research only."

Whaling said the state seems to be taking a "slow and steady approach" to expanding cultivation of hemp by sticking to its research pilot program, which Powers confirmed will continue.

But Whaling noted Pennsylvania's program is one of the most restrictive in the country; the state only hands out 60 permits annually — at a $2,000 price tag — and those approved can only use up to 100 acres of land.

Geoff Whaling, president of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council.

"(Expanding hemp cultivation) would bring in huge amounts of investment," he said. "But no one's going to invest in the industrial hemp program if we're limited to 100 acres to grow it. This has huge potential, and I know how desperate farmers are."

Whaling added he is continuing to work with the state to help it take full advantage of the Farm Bill and the hemp act within it, and he's confident the state will "rightfully take back its position as a leader in this crop," even if it takes a year or more.

The PDA's plans: Powers assured that the state government would be working to do just that. 

“The department is very excited about the possibilities," Powers said. "The state already has a tremendously diverse agriculture industry. This is just one new opportunity for new farmers to enter a new market and a new crop.”

Hemp could benefit more than farmers, she added. Hemp also contains roughly 3.5 percent cannabidiol, or CBD, a chemical that produces many of the medical benefits of marijuana but does not get the user high.

The expansion of the hemp industry could increase the availability of the chemical, which is boasted to reduce pain, anxiety, nausea and more, Powers said.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster and parts of York County, was a large supporter of the 2018 Farm Bill and shares Powers' enthusiasm.

"Hemp has a lot of potential for farmers who are interested in diversifying in our district," Smucker said. "It may be a cash crop that could provide additional revenue at a time when many farms are struggling."

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.