Pennsylvania’s once vast hemp harvest re-emerges from the weeds

Pennsylvania is experimenting with reintroducing industrial hemp, a once dominant cash crop, to the state.

On 14 plots scattered across Pennsylvania this year, farmers reintroduced what was once a dominant cash crop to the state: industrial hemp, the straight-laced, nonpsychoactive cannabis cousin of marijuana.

Not one of the growers had any experience cultivating the plant, which grows so quickly that it’s nicknamed “weed.” So problems were to be expected. However, nobody anticipated one complication.

“We had some projects that really did everything right, but were completely overrun by weeds” — real weeds, said Russell Redding, the state’s secretary of agriculture. “You’d have fields that were beautifully green, but overwhelmed by unwanted species.”

Sometimes knowledge is hard-won, even in a state with a long history of cultivation dating to the colonial era and more than a dozen school districts named “Hempfield.”

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“It’s a new old crop, a native crop, but we have a complete void of experience that we desperately need,” said Redding, who is aiming to visit all 14 hemp plots that the state has permitted. “That’s what this three-year project is about. We’re working hard to build the groundwork.”

Each of the experiments was viewed as a success, however. For starters, the crops grew faster than anyone expected, despite a delay in planting caused by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) holding up the seeds, which had to be imported from Canada.

“Everyone was blown away by how vigorous the plant is,” said Ross Duffield, farm manager at the Rodale Institute‘s experimental farm near Kutztown. “It was the ugliest field of cannabis you ever saw, full of seeds and inconsistent growth. But in two months, we had 14 feet. It was heavy.”

“We’re hoping to build on that and grow a cash crop next year,” he said.

Industrial hemp was banned with marijuana in 1937 by the federal government, partly because the two kinds of cannabis were easily confused with each other. Now hemp, like its skunky cousin, is resurgent.

At the same time marijuana is being pitched as a medicine of last resort, industrial hemp is being hailed as a wonder crop of another sort: its fiber for fabric and construction materials, its seeds for high-protein dietary supplements and a source of food-grade oil, and the whole plant as a source for CBD…

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