Erica Stark stood in the middle of a lush green field in Berks County, surveying the small ocean of legal cannabis and its uncertain future.
Pennsylvania’s first commercial hemp harvest is underway. Stark, the executive director of the National Hemp Association, said the crop, blessed by “fabulous" weather, is healthy and beautiful.
“It’s looking really good!”
The farm is owned by Drew Overholzer, one of more than 300 permit holders licensed to grow the once forbidden crop in Pennsylvania. Overholzer, like many others in the state, was enticed by promises of profits. Some experts earlier this year estimated some CBD strains could reach $50,000 an acre.
Since December, when the federal Farm Bill legalized hemp cultivation, hundreds of farmers across the nation have gone all in on the cannabis plant. But even as demand for CBD products derived from hemp is skyrocketing, some agronomists are sounding a warning about a possible glut.
“We’re building a new industry from the ground up, so there are a lot of unknowns,” said Shannon Powers, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. “Will there be a market for our materials? Will there be processors? Will there be a steady supply?”
The first ever Pennsylvania Hemp Summit, to be held Oct. 7 and 8 at the Lancaster Convention Center in Lancaster, about 70 miles west of Philadelphia, will attempt to hash out the answers to many of those questions.
“People are holding their plans close to the vest," said Stark. “I hear lots of plans and ambition. But most of them know better than to count their chickens before they’re hatched.”
Stark is hopeful — but realistic. Prices are unlikely to be as stratospheric as initially projected.
“I think it’s unlikely people are going to get $50,000 an acre,” said Stark, who has been on the forefront of hemp advocacy for the past decade. “But maybe $10,000 an acre might be reasonable. It’s still significantly more than corn or wheat.”
The Cash Crop
In Pennsylvania this year, farmers planted about 8,000 acres of hemp.
That’s small potatoes compared to Oregon, where 62,000 acres was seeded with industrial hemp in the fields and 10 million square feet are being cultivated under indoor grow lights, according tot he Oregon Department of Agriculture.
In Kentucky, home to hemp advocate Sen. Mitch McConnell, 60,000 acres were licensed for hemp along with six million square feet in so-called grow houses, according to the Bluegrass State’s agriculture department.
The bet is that there’s big money in hemp strains that are heavy with cannabidiol, better known as CBD, a compound that companies are peddling as a panacea for everything from cancer to your dog’s anxiety. The oils must be pressed, processed and refined. Other strains are intended for fiber, which commands less of a premium. Fiber, derived from the tallest of hemp plants, must be processed in a process known as decordification.
Hemp this year is being farmed in 63 of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, said Jeffrey Graybill, an agronomy educator with Penn State.
And Lancaster County — once a historic capital of hemp in the United States — is, unsurprisingly, the center of production in the Keystone State. Besides being the home of both East and West Hempfield townships, the county also has the largest Amish settlement in the country with an Anabaptist population of nearly 40,000.
“A lot of the folks with hemp are Amish who are growing it for investors,” said Graybill. “We are by far the largest county in the state as far as acreage and investment. We have a lot to gain — or a lot to lose. But I’m still hopeful.”
The harvest began the first week of September. “A hard cold snap of 25 degrees will kill it, so you need to bring it in by mid-October," Graybill said "They have a month to get it cut down and dried.”
The English and Amish Join Hands
Crysta and Brendan Stehman are owners of Sidetrack Farms near Mount Joy. They’re “English” — that is how the Amish refer to non-Amish people. Crysta’s background is in tobacco. Her husband’s is in organic produce. This year, they had toyed with the idea of planting black garlic. But after a long living room conversation, Crysta said, "We decided. Why don’t we check out growing hemp?”
Their first foray into cannabis has meant a long, learning curve for the Stehmans.
“It wasn’t easy for us, but it was good for us,” said Crysta Stehman. They added an additional challenge by making sure Sidetrack Farms was qualified to have its hemp deemed USDA Certfied Organic.
The Stehmans partnered with their Amish neighbors. They are harvesting hemp by hand, using saws to cut through the thick and bushy stalks, some of which are up to four inches in diameter.
“All of our cultivation and irrigation was laid by horses,” she said. “The ground was worked by horses. Everything is horses and hands.”
Stehman’s Amish neighbors are trying to learn everything they can about hemp. “They were really interested in the medicinal aspects of it. It’s a crop we, and they, feel good about growing. And with the fiber and the grain it will go on to help the world. That’s a big reason why we’re all in it."
Farmer Steve Groff in a field of industrial hemp.
Also betting on Hemp is Steve Groff. He is as close to a celebrity farmer as you’ll find. He grows pumpkins and squash for Whole Foods stores in the region. He produces tomatoes for Trader Joe’s.
Groff, who heads up Hemp Innovators, has a sophisticated internet presence and a book in the works.
“Hemp fits right into my plans,” said Groff, who has one of the largest industrial cannabis operations in the state — 70 acres of hemp thriving near the Susquehanna River in Holtwood in southern Lancaster County. Groff is also partnered with Amish hemp growers through Keystone Agriscience, a nascent farming cooperative.
“We just bought a dryer. I’m working with several labs, one of which is in Pottstown, which is kinda ironic.”
Glut? Say what?
Groff expects a rich return on his investment. Corn, he said, usually generates between $300 and $400 an acre in profit. “That’s par course." Tobacco nets a couple of thousand an acre, he said. “That’s why Amish have traditionally liked to grow it.”
“But this hemp crop — I expect $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 an acre,” he said. “But to get that there’s an element of risk. A rainy summer, like last year’s could have destroyed it all."
The Amish see hemp as a way to preserve their agricultural futures, he said. The former hemp-farmlands in townships of East and West Hempfield are now largely planted with tract homes. Their hope is that hemp might save large swathes of farmland in the rest of Lancaster County.
They were initially reticent about hemp’s similarity to marijuana, and concerned about marijuana’s psychoactive THC. “But once they understood that the CBD in hemp was good for you, they said ‘OK, I get it. I’m all in'.”
Groff already has forged contracts for most of his hemp. “I’m going it sell it all,” he said.
Does he fear a glut? He scoffs. So far he hasn’t seen any credible signs of overproduction. “There’s a huge pent up demand for it.”
“There were a few buyers trying to get a cheaper price. But now, I think that’s just posturing," he said.
"All indications are that the market is very strong.”