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Westmoreland County angles for piece of hemp industry

| Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, 8:17 p.m.
Roger Altman mows a field at the Westmoreland Fairgrounds in Mt. Pleasant Twp. on June 13, 2012 in preparation for the 2012 Westmoreland Fair which opens on August 17, 2012  and runs through August 25, 2012. Altman serves on the Westmoreland Fair's Board of Directors. 
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Tribune-Review
Roger Altman mows a field at the Westmoreland Fairgrounds in Mt. Pleasant Twp. on June 13, 2012 in preparation for the 2012 Westmoreland Fair which opens on August 17, 2012 and runs through August 25, 2012. Altman serves on the Westmoreland Fair's Board of Directors. Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review

A local coalition of agriculture, academia and industry is facing a tight deadline to pitch projects for the first round of state-issued industrial hemp research certificates.

“We want to ensure Westmoreland County has a seat at the table during this process,” said Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Greensburg, who hosted a roundtable discussion Friday at the Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce.

Application deadline is Jan. 6.

The county is positioned to be a potential “hub” for industrial hemp in Pennsylvania, with hemp applications including injection molding, medicines, foods and other byproducts, as well as being a cash crop for farmers.

The state Department of Agriculture will approve 30 research projects and five acres for each project for the 2017 growing season. The department will issue certificates to universities or individuals contracted to grow industrial hemp for research purposes.

Penn State University is expected to submit multiple applications, given its agricultural research infrastructure. But it will only pursue research and planting at its main campus and a branch campus near Harrisburg, state agriculture officials said, according to Nelson.

He and others have been pushing Porcelain Park, site of the former Westinghouse facility in Derry, as a potential multimillion-dollar investment site for a processing facility.

“We see this property as an opportunity for reinvestment in terms of light manufacturing or assembly,” said Jason Rigone, director of the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corporation. “There (are) no specific plans yet.”

Friday's discussion touched on the potential advantage industrial hemp could have for the local economy, including benefits for farming, manufacturing and the environment.

Erica McBride, a founding member of the PA Hemp Industry Council, told the roundtable about the crop's thousands of uses. Industrial hemp could be used as a building product, like “hemp-crete,” a solid block that resembles concrete. In Europe, automakers Volvo, BMW and Audi use hemp to manufacture parts that are durable and lightweight, improving fuel efficiency, she said.

The hemp plant's deep root system aerates soil, helps control erosion and removes heavy metals and toxins. That process, known as phytoremediation, can benefit brownfields and abandoned coal mine sites, McBride said.

Rigone said the IDC would be willing to volunteer some brownfield properties in need of remediation for hemp cultivation.

Roger Altman, a Hempfield farmer, said after the discussion that he views hemp as “a potential alternative” in a crop rotation.

Given how the pilot program is structured, Altman likely would have to contract with a group that has obtained a certificate. He also said he was wary of the more than $3,000 in fees associated with the program.

Industrial hemp is a cousin of marijuana but with a lower concentration of the psychoactive chemical known as THC.

Hemp was commercially grown in the United States until after World War II, when it became regulated the same as marijuana and cultivation was banned.

Pennsylvania, the country's fifth-largest importer of hemp, already spends millions of dollars on the product, McBride said.

Kevin Zwick is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2856 or kzwick@tribweb.com.

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