The taboo is over, the ban has been lifted and the race has begun as hundreds of Pennsylvania farmers begin growing hemp.
The state Department of Agriculture issued 319 hemp growing permits this year — nearly 10 times the number from last year.
More than 20 of those permits are for operations in Westmoreland and Allegheny counties.
Until this year, the state only allowed farmers to grow small amounts of the crop for research purposes. Thanks to a change in federal law, hemp can now be grown commercially.
Adam Battistella has owned a farm in Hempfield for about 30 years. He used to raise horses, then cattle. He’s semi-retired but decided to get into hemp.
“There’s so many uses for it, and there’s so many varieties you can grow,” he said.
He purchased about 6,000 hemp seeds and has invested about $25,000 into getting his new endeavor running, he said.
“We’ve got quite a bit invested in this operation, hopefully everything works out,” he said.
He’s working with Commonwealth Alternative Medical Options, or CAMO, a hemp company that owns a processing facility in New Stanton that takes hemp and extracts the wildly popular health supplement cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD.
CAMO contracts with five farmers to grow about 65 acres of hemp, according to Chief Operating Officer Mike Moody.
Hemp can be used to make textiles, industrial materials and as a food additive, but right now CBD is the best bet for farmers, Battistella said.
“There’s no real infrastructure for any of the other products in this area,” he said.
Hemp used to be a common crop in the United States. It’s a variety of the cannabis plant with very low THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.
It can’t get you high, but the federal government banned it in the 1930s because of its association with marijuana.
The local economic impact of hemp farming will be limited by how quickly industry grows around it, Battistella said.
Ron Boyle is part of a group licensed to operate several hemp farms — one in Rostraver, two near Uniontown in Fayette County, and one in Port Matilda in Centre County. He plans to grow about 100 acres of hemp this year.
Boyle, who also owns medical marijuana consulting firm The Green Bridge Society, predicts investors will spend millions to build up the hemp industry in Pennsylvania.
“There’s going to be production everywhere,” he said.
He sees hemp as a boon to Pennsylvania farmers.
“This is a legit, viable industry that’s going to add jobs to the economy, and add a lot of money to the economy, and really help farmers out,” he said.
The size of local hemp operations ranges from large companies like CAMO, which oversees hundreds of acres, to small home farms.
Tyler Lamb is in the latter category.
He and his business partner Joe Shebab plan to grow about 1,600 hemp plants on two acres in Natrona Heights this year.
He described their operation as a small “craft-style” hemp farm.
Rather than extracting CBD oil, he envisions selling his hemp to restaurants, breweries, juice bars or other businesses that can use it as a food additive.
He has experience doing just that. Though he now lives in Pennsylvania, Lamb used to live in California, where he owned a business that made hemp-infused peanut butter.
Until industrial infrastructure exists, hemp farmers will need to find a niche for their products, he said.
“I think that’s where you’ll see a big boom here,” he said.
Westmoreland County agencies are getting in on the action.
The Westmoreland Industrial Development Corp. in February loaned $100,000 to Greenforge, a nonprofit operated by officials with the corporation, the Westmoreland Conservation District and local farmers.
Greenforge bought equipment for planting and harvesting hemp, and will lease it to farmers.
This helps lower the risk for farmers, who can lease the specialized equipment they need rather than buying it themselves, said Jason Rigone, corporation director.
He doesn’t think hemp is a silver bullet for local farmers, but he does see it as one potentially money-making option for them.
“Predictions are a tough thing to throw around,” he said. “I think the county wants to ensure that our farmers, and our agricultural sector, has the opportunity to enter the market at the beginning rather than after the market matures. We want to be on the cutting edge of this product.”
The the speed of research, investment and changing regulations make it tough to predict the future of the hemp business, Moody said.
“It’s going to be a lot of change, and it’s hard to see even a year out what it’s going to be like,” he said.
Globally, hemp is a $3.7 billion industry, according to industry analyst New Frontier Data. It’s expected to grow to $5.7 billion by 2020, driven largely by growing demand for CBD products and the newly lifted restrictions in the United States.