DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — Delaware Valley University will study best practices for growing hemp as one of the first institutions to grow the crop in Pennsylvania in decades.
The school will test varieties and fertilizer programs, tally plant populations and yields, and see which pests show up, said Scott Smith, the DelVal farm manager.
“The students will be the forefront of collection of data, analyzing and interpreting the data,” said Chris Filling, the university’s hydroponic greenhouse manager.
Commercial hemp farming has been outlawed in the U.S. for decades, but the 2014 Farm Bill allowed an exception for research trials.
Hemp is the same species as marijuana but has too little of the chemical THC to get anyone high.
Pennsylvania legalized hemp research last year and issued its first 16 production permits earlier this year.
DelVal will get its hemp seeds from the University of Kentucky, one of the programs that jumped into hemp research the fastest.
Filling and his colleagues selected four varieties that tested well in Kentucky and seemed like they could prosper in Pennsylvania too.
Insects that target corn and soybeans are the most likely pests of hemp, though it’s possible that produce and greenhouse menaces could cause damage too, Filling said.
May is generally a good time to plant the crop, but moisture will dictate the exact planting date, Smith said.
DelVal is starting small — the crop will be grown on a tenth of an acre at the school’s farm — but the team has already been weighing how hemp could fit into a rotation with other field crops.
To prevent people from messing with the crop, fencing and the school’s existing security measures should be sufficient, Filling said.
“The potential problem is those that don’t know the difference between industrial hemp and commercial medical cannabis,” Filling said.
“We’re wondering if it is a concern,” Smith said.
Following regulations, the school will not save seeds from this year’s crop, though the school will likely find a way to get the fiber processed.
Faculty and staff will also pick up where the students’ agronomic analysis leaves off.
Because hemp is currently an uncommon crop in the U.S., there’s no go-to way to harvest the crop.
Equipment on the market ranges from handheld sickles to specialized combines, Smith said.
“A lot of the equipment is almost proprietary to the individual farmers” who have made it, Filling said.
Hemp has numerous industrial uses and might work as a biofuel feedstock.
As an alternative fiber crop, hemp could eventually become a threat to the cotton and timber industries, two groups Filling suspects had a role in shutting down hemp farming in the first place.
“It’s an alternative to cotton, is really the way to look at it,” Smith said.
At the very least, hemp would be another crop to diversify a farm’s crop rotation, he said.
For DelVal students preparing for careers in agriculture, hemp provides a rare opportunity to get experience with an up-and-coming field crop, Filling said.
Eric Hurlock, Lancaster Farming Digital Editor, contributed to the reporting of this story.