EPHRATA, Pa. — In the fledgling days of the United States, Lancaster County was an important producer of hemp, and the crop played a role in the nation’s early history.
“Betsy Ross’ flag was made of hemp fabric. Every Conestoga wagon that left this area was covered with hemp fabric. All the rope for the U.S. Navy and ships was made of hemp that came from this area. Two copies of the Declaration of Independence are drafted on hemp paper,” said Geoff Whaling, president of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council.
During a gathering last week at Four Seasons Produce, Whaling told business leaders, policymakers, law enforcement officials and farmers that hemp can once again be a major crop in Pennsylvania — but there’s a lot of work to do first.
Most production knowledge has been lost since hemp growing was banned in the 1940s and the crop was put on the federal controlled substance list in 1970.
Whaling blames the DuPont chemical magnates and news giant William Randolph Hearst for suppressing a crop they saw as a threat to their nylon and paper interests.
“They worked hard to get hemp bundled together with marijuana and banned in the 1940s, the very year that Henry Ford made the very first hemp sedan and fueled his entire fleet with hemp ethanol,” Whaling said. “So that industry died instantly.”
Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp contains too little of the chemical THC to induce a high.
Despite the U.S. production ban, hemp continues to be harvested elsewhere in the world.
China, the world’s leading producer with 8 million acres, uses hemp mainly for traditional purposes such as fabric.
But the crop’s uses are seemingly endless.
Various parts of the plant can be used in plastics, concrete, medicine, even nano-scale circuitry.
The United States is the largest importer of hemp — $600 million annually — but the nation has inched toward reopening domestic production.
The 2014 Farm Bill permitted hemp research, and many states, including Pennsylvania, changed their laws accordingly.
The Senate’s version of the 2018 Farm Bill would delist hemp as a controlled substance and legalize commercial production, but the House version is silent on hemp.
Even if hemp is legalized, the U.S. would have to build a supply chain for the crop — seed sources, harvesting equipment, processing plants.
If every part of the crop were used, Whaling thinks hemp could generate $9,000 an acre.
“But unless we have a place for (farmers) to take it to, there’s no point,” he said.
Farmers need to be thoroughly involved in developing Pennsylvania’s hemp industry, said state Ag Secretary Russell Redding.
“It is a rare moment when you have the rediscovery of a plant with deep roots in our history. It’s a rare moment when you can actually say, ‘Let’s use that moment for the benefit of agriculture and farmers of this state,’” Redding said.
Whaling’s vision is more grandiose: “I am absolutely determined to make the Berks, Lancaster and Lehigh areas the epicenter for the return of hemp, not only in Pennsylvania, but in the nation.”