Westmoreland’s first hemp harvest is a bit rocky
With Westmoreland County’s first industrial hemp harvest under way, the growing pains are evident.
Two harvester machines that had been made available to farmers for lease were sidelined last week during a harvest near West Newton. The hemp harvest had to continue by hand.
“It’s new to everybody and they’re learning — learning how to plant it, learning how to harvest it,” said Greg Phillips, CEO of the Westmoreland Conservation District.
Farmers who are used to planting corn and soybeans have had to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of the hemp plant — long out of favor but now enjoying a resurgence in Pennsylvania.
The plant has oils and fibers that can jam up a machine, said Reid Crosby, an organic vegetable farmer in Hempfield who’s getting ready to harvest a small plot of hemp.
“It’s the growing pains of a new industry,” he said.
Crosby is one of an estimated 10 Westmoreland County farmers who planted anywhere from 700 to 10,000 hemp plants this year. Their interest in hemp as a supplemental cash crop blossomed after the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp — a variety of the cannabis species — and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture lifted the cap on how many acres could be planted in 2019.
Previously considered a controlled substance similar to marijuana, hemp that is grown for industrial purposes must have less than .3% of the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Pennsylvania farmers who grow hemp must have it tested by an accredited laboratory and send the results to the state.
The department issued 319 hemp growing permits this year — nearly 10 times the number from last year. Eleven permits were issued to Westmoreland County growers in Greensburg, Ligonier, Mt. Pleasant, Murrysville, North Huntingdon, Webster (Rostraver Township) and West Leechburg, while 10 were issued to Allegheny County growers.
Estimates of how much hemp was grown regionally this year are hard to come by, but statewide there were 800 grow locations totaling approximately 8,000 acres, said Geoff Whaling, president of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council.
Phillips said local farmers planted anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 plants. One in Youngwood planted 7,000 plants on 25 acres using rented equipment from the nonprofit organization Greenforge, he said.
Most of those plants are going to a facility in New Stanton operated by Commonwealth Alternative Medicinal Options, or CAMO, for processing into CBD oil. The Pittsburgh-based medical marijuana research firm got in on the ground floor of hemp production in Westmoreland County in 2017.
“Certainly, most of the acreage that has been planted (statewide) … has been planted for CBD extraction,” Whaling said, noting that cannabidiol comes from the plant’s leafy material and flowers.
Standing in his research-and-development plot of 700 plants, Crosby compares the current interest in hemp to the “tulip mania” of the 1600s in the Netherlands. He’s careful not to press the comparison too far.
“There’s a lot of hype about hemp. There’s a lot of challenges about hemp, too — and a lot of opportunities,” he said.
Crosby received his seedlings from CAMO and is operating under CAMO’s permit, but he sees a future for his own organic hemp operation.
“I think, depending on how the laws go, if we’re able to do farm-to-consumer, I could see where we would do a boutique grow — maybe an acre or two of our own plants in the future. Maybe direct market it, if we’re able to. That would include smokable buds, in addition to any oil extraction we could do on a small scale,” he said.
Crosby’s son, Ethan, 17, a senior at Hempfield Area High School, also is enthusiastic about the prospects.
“There’s not a whole lot of industries that just appear one day, and this is one of them. To me, that’s a pretty exciting opportunity,” Ethan Crosby said.
“A year ago, I didn’t know what hemp was,” he said. “As far as I was concerned, it was the same as any other cannabis plant. But that’s not it at all. There’s a lot of people who have that mindset, so a big part of this has to be education.”
Estimates for up-front costs and potential profits vary widely, depending on whether the hemp is being planted for the CBD industry or for other purposes. Up-front investments are nationally averaging $6,000 to $8,000 an acre, Whaling said.
“We really don’t know what the revenues are going to be because we’re just building an industry,” Whaling said. “If they get $5,000 or even $7,000 an acre, it would have been significantly more than they got for corn or soybeans.”
If hemp has a future in Westmoreland County, it will be more as an artisanal crop than as a traditional row crop, Phillips said. Hemp cultivation can be fussy, expensive and time consuming.
“It’s not planted like corn and soybeans but more like you would see vegetables planted — or a nursery crop or Christmas tree farm,” Phillips said. “Getting the right site and having the right management is key to it. In the future, it’ll probably go much like early sweet corn — with raised beds, a plastic covering to suppress weeds and drip irrigation.”
The state’s first Pennsylvania Hemp Summit will be held Oct. 8 at the Lancaster Convention Center.
State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, an active hemp supporter, said he plans to attend the summit and is heartened by what he sees with this year’s harvest.
“Our Westmoreland County farmers are generating profit from the crop. It’s exciting to open up a new avenue of commerce and jobs,” Nelson said. “I think there are good days ahead for hemp.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .