As its name implies, the Lancaster Dairy Herd Improvement Association has built its business serving milk producers.
But the Manheim, Pennsylvania-based firm has expanded on its milk, blood and forage analysis to become a go-to sampling and testing lab for the fledgling hemp industry.
Don Breneman, who manages the forage lab at Lancaster DHIA, was a little surprised in the spring of 2019 when his boss mentioned that the company was looking into testing industrial hemp.
The plant, newly cleared for commercial production, turned out to be a good fit.
DHIA leaders knew from industry buzz that there would be a need for testing, especially in and around Lancaster County, where the state had issued the highest number of grower permits for 2019.
Hemp must be tested to show that its content of THC, the psychoactive chemical in cousin marijuana, is below the legal limit of 0.3%.
The certificate of analysis generated by the hemp testing has also become an important part of selling the harvest because it gives buyers a detailed picture of the crop’s quality.
And besides, the lab in Wisconsin where DHIA sends its forage samples was already doing hemp testing using high-performance liquid chromatography.
“So after that, we put the dots together and have been testing ever since,” Breneman said. “It was in our wheelhouse.”
Hemp looks and smells like marijuana. So when Breneman mails the samples, he takes care to follow the U.S. Postal Service’s protocol to prevent them from being flagged as contraband.
“Having all the paperwork in packages and having a notification on the outside of each box, it lets them know it’s industrial hemp inside. A lot of times they can smell it,” Breneman said.
Only twice has there been an issue.
“Both times I got a call from the postmaster that was suspicious of the package, and fortunately both times we had the proper paperwork inside, such as a grower’s permit or the chain of custody forms, and they always passed it through,” he said.
Breneman said it takes about five business days to get the sample out to the lab and have the results back to the grower — which is good, because the grower only has 15 days to harvest the crop after the sample has been collected from the field, in accordance with USDA’s interim final rule on hemp production.
This rule has frustrated hemp farmers because it makes harvest timing tricky.
Harvest too early, and the crop won’t have developed enough cannabinoids to be worth as much on the market.
Harvest too late, and THC levels can spike, forcing the crop to be destroyed under the guidance of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
The Ag Department certifies private testers to do the on-farm hemp sampling.
Three of those registered samplers, including Breneman, are Lancaster DHIA employees.
“I wanted to get fully involved because being out there in the public, meeting the growers, is great marketing,” Breneman said. “We build relationships. That’s the way this industry is right now. Everybody is trying to help everybody else. Everybody wants to see this succeed.”
Before he goes out to sample a crop, Breneman likes to have a copy of the grower’s permit and a list of the varieties being grown on site. That way he can get a lot of the copious paperwork done ahead of time.
On site, after talking to the owner or permit holder, he takes a picture of each plot that he’ll be testing. Then he starts clipping samples.
Breneman takes 10 2-inch clippings of hemp flower from each variety.
“Most cases, (it’s) side flower,” he said. “I’m not really messing with colas,” which are the main, central flowers of the plant.
He puts the clippings in a paper bag labeled with the variety, the permit number and his sampling agent number. His top concern is “not to be mixing samples up, things like that,” he said.
He takes the samples back to the lab to be photographed and placed in a dryer at 140 degrees for 90 minutes.
The samples are dried down to about 10% moisture and then mailed to the lab in Wisconsin, where the oil is extracted through a methanol process.
The extracted oil is given a complete potency test and cannabinoid analysis that lists the percentages of CBD, THC, CBG and a host of other lesser cannabinoids. Well over 100 known cannabinoids can be present in a sample.
Finally, the sample is sent to a lab in California to be checked for pesticides, mold, vomitoxin, heavy metals and more.
All of this happens in about five business days.
The results are sent to the Ag Department and the permit holder in the form of a certificate of analysis, the document that buyers like to see.
Once the state has deemed the crop compliant with the THC threshold, the hemp is cleared for harvest.
Breneman enjoys the sampling work, getting out into the field and talking to farmers, especially after long days of lab work.
“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” he said.