Allen Wagner holds a flat of CBD hemp seedlings in his ALtoona greenhouse, May 2019.

Alan Wagner, owner of Wagner’s Greenhouses in Altoona, Pennsylvania, had been in the greenhouse business for 45 years. Now, he exclusively grows industrial hemp.

Wagner sold mostly annuals and said business was good until big box stores started popping up.

“We ended up just not having quite as much fun as we used to,” Wagner said.

He considered closing his greenhouse, but ended up getting in touch with Penn State Extension agent Tom Ford, and the two started talking about the hemp industry.

Ford told Wagner that the wet 2018 was causing problems for hemp growers, and explained that there could be a niche market for Wagner to grow hemp seedlings to sell to the growers.

“He thought I might be interested in doing it,” Wagner said. “It’s something new. No one else seemed to be in it.”

Wagner got his permit to grow hemp the first week of March. But he had a few struggles actually buying the seeds he needed to start growing.

“There’s a lot of people that would not sell me seeds to germinate and then sell to another customer,” Wagner said. “They were afraid of their genetics getting out.”

He eventually found Colorado Seeds Solutions, and was able to purchase seeds. Because of the quantity purchased, Wagner was also given the rights to genetics for reproduction, cuttings, resale and seed production.

Wagner got his seeds planted in early April.

“I’m not sure whether it’s my problem or I had a seed problem, but I got a lower germination than I anticipated,” Wagner said.

Wagner then ordered 5 pounds of more seeds from the same Colorado company. He finished transplanting his first group of seeds around April 22.

At this point, Wagner had plants, but he didn’t yet have a market. He felt confident that he would be able to find a market, since the hemp acreage cap was removed in Pennsylvania.

At the time Wagner had started planting his seeds, there were already over 400 people who had applied for hemp permits.

Wagner sold his seedlings as flats of 70, and included two extra in case of breakage during shipment.

His original intent was to sex the plants and sell only feminized flats, but it ended up being more time consuming and difficult than he expected. Because of this, he lowered his prices per flat.

Wagner’s first hemp planting was about 100,000 seedlings, his second was closer to 200,000.

Due to Pennsylvania’s growing season, Wagner sees an advantage to buying seedlings started in greenhouses. Typically, Pennsylvania growers don’t plant hemp until around June 1, so putting a seedling in that was started in a greenhouse in April or May gives the plant an advantage.

“I see the industry future going to seedlings or rooted cuttings or clones,” Wagner said.

Though he bought most of his seed as speculative, he expects demand to continue to rise, especially as other states pass more laws to allow the growing of hemp.

Wagner could sell out of state, but kept his sales limited to Pennsylvania this year.

Since he just started growing hemp in his greenhouses, he is also growing about 2 acres of hemp in the field.

“I’m just growing to learn,” Wagner said. He wants to be able to answer his customers’ questions about hemp, so he’s growing the plants to educate himself.

Wagner is hoping to be in the hemp industry for the long term. He sees a promising future in hemp, and doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon.

“The folks that are in (the hemp industry) this year are actually like the frontiersman,” Wagner said. “We’re working on a brand new industry here in the United States. I think in the long run it’s going to be a nice, stable industry.”

This article is based on an interview from the Lancaster Farming Podcast. To listen to the interview in its entirety, go to http://bit.ly/LFpodcast35