2019 started optimistically for hemp enthusiasts. The president had just signed the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized the commercial growing of the crop after an 80-year prohibition.
Then the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture declared the state open for business by removing the acreage cap for hemp growers and offering an unlimited number of permits for the 2019 growing season.
Considerable interest in growing hemp was prompted by reports of farmers getting $50,000 to $100,000 an acre for CBD hemp.
CBD, or cannabidiol, is a compound found in hemp with reputed health benefits.
Hemp partnerships and businesses were launched, mostly to grow for CBD.
With hemp having been out of production for so long, many groups held information sessions and brought in speakers from places like Colorado and Oregon, where the cannabis industry has already taken hold.
By late spring, Pennsylvania had issued nearly 400 growing permits covering 812 growing locations — compared to 35 research permits granted in 2018.
While CBD was the main attraction, other businesses focused on hemp for fiber and grain.
Startup company Groff North America announced plans to build a whole-plant processing facility in Red Lion and contracted with farmers to grow nearly 2,000 acres of fiber hemp.
In October, USDA released proposed regulations for the hemp industry as required by the Farm Bill. The rules are currently open for public comment.
Pennsylvania’s weather was great for growing hemp, but growers had problems with accidental pollination; state-mandated testing for THC, a high-inducing chemical that must be minimal in hemp; and theft of plants from the field.
The steepest learning curve for farmers was how to harvest and dry the crop.
In September and October, farmers scrambled to get their crops out of the field and into drying facilities. Harvesting CBD hemp is very labor-intensive, which took some farmers by surprise.
In early October, the state Ag Department hosted a Hemp Summit, where Lancaster Farming recorded a live episode of its popular Industrial Hemp Podcast.
With harvest over, a glut of hemp has caused prices to tumble.
Yet the nascent industry is full of optimism. Many hemp farmers are saying that they will grow the crop again in 2020.
The CBD market might turn out to be a bubble, while the versatile fiber — useful for paper, clothing, building materials and more — could hold the crop’s long-term future.