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County's hemp crop matures

Canabis product that is not marijuana growing on 4 farms

Commercial hemp farming is quietly taking seed in Butler County as the new industry starts to bloom.

After the 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from federal controlled substances regulations, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture began issuing commercial hemp farming permits this spring. The commonwealth saw legal hemp cultivated for research purposes during the two years prior, but this year the state's first permits were issued to farmers growing hemp for profit.

In Butler County, just four farms received permits. The deadline to apply was May 1. There are more than 300 permits in the state.

All four permit-holders spoke to the Butler Eagle about their experiences as early hemp adopters, but just one consented to be named in this story.

None of Butler County's first commercial hemp farmers wanted photos to be taken of their farms, mainly out of fears of theft or vandalism. So far the operations are all small, and are generally kept away from large roads or other high visibility areas. Local police were given GPS coordinates for the sites.

Worries should be assuaged as hemp education spreads, said Erica McBride, executive director of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council.

“In more conservative areas, people still don't always understand the difference between hemp and marijuana,” McBride said.

She explains the difference in simple terms. Both hemp and marijuana are cannabis, but hemp is not marijuana.

The important difference is the presence or lack of a chemical called THC. That's the particular chemical, McBride said, that gets people high when they smoke marijuana.

Permit-holding hemp farmers in Pennsylvania are subject to random state testing to ensure their crop's THC levels are below 0.03 percent, a level far below what's required for the psychoactive effects associated with marijuana.

William Nichols, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, said THC levels are the only legal distinction the state is using to tell hemp and marijuana apart.

“There are physical characteristic differences between marijuana and hemp, but there are also physical variations between seed varieties, fiber varieties and CBD (cannabidiol) varieties of hemp,” Nichols said. “To be safe, a chemical analysis is the official, legal way to tell the difference between hemp and marijuana.”

These early ventures into hemp farming are predominantly for CBD purposes. McBride said that's the case not only here, but across the country.

“That's where the money is and where the markets are,” she said.

Other purposes make use of hemp's fibrous nature, but generally require more local plant-processing infrastructure to be profitable. The fibers are seen as an environmentally friendly material used in a wide variety of products.

One Butler County farmer, Marcus Ricard, said he's raising hemp on about half-an-acre of land specifically for CBD purposes. It's a small operation with only about 650 plants.

He put plants in the ground during the first week of June.

“They're almost six feet tall and four and a half feet wide now,” Ricard said.

He said they're aiming to grow high quality hemp that can be used in premium products. Eventually, they want to process their plants into products and sell them locally, he said. He envisions local brands eventually being an important niche of the CBD market.

Ricard is already building toward that future. He and his team have put up a building and are working on getting electricity for the site.

Setting up took lots of work, both Ricard and other Butler County farmers explained. Ground needed tilling. Premium soil was brought in. Each plant got an augured hole to sprout in. A little cage, like one used to support tomato plants, was placed on each plant. Irrigation lines, fertilizer and daily care were all needed.

Seeds are one of the less obvious, but considerable, costs for startups. A pound of seeds can cost thousands, and growers have to be careful in their handling and labeling per state requirements.

Aside from the pains of learning a new trade, Butler County farmers are also worried about thieves who mistake the plant for a drug. McBride said she's heard of some theft across the state, but not much.

Nichols said his department is trying to fight those misunderstandings.

“The department uses a robust public outreach effort to talk about Pennsylvania's Industrial Hemp Program and educate the general public on the difference between hemp and marijuana,” Nichols said. “We also encourage hemp permit holders to post signage identifying their crop as hemp and not marijuana, but that isn't required.”

The county's commercial hemp crop should start being harvested between now and the end of September.

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