Industrial hemp research plot planted in Perry County

NEWPORT, Pa. (WHTM) — Seeds are in the ground at the site of an industrial hemp research plot in Perry County.

On Tuesday afternoon, farmer Jeremiah Elsesser worked the tractor pulling the seed drill filled with the first hemp seeds to be legally planted in the local area for decades.

“Our hopes are that it will grow very well,” Elsesser said. “It hasn’t been grown here in over 80 years.”

Elsesser is working with landowners Bill and Martha Roberts, who successfully applied for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program. Roughly five acres on the couple’s 100-acre farm in Juniata Township will be dedicated to growing industrial hemp, which should grow to maturity by the end of September.

The permit granted to the Roberts’ is one of just 16 across the state and specifically allows for the hemp to be harvested for the purpose of feeding cows.

“Instead of grass-fed cows, we’ll have hemp-fed,” Martha Roberts said. “We’re going to harvest the plants, remove the seeds from it and press it to remove the oil. What remains is a high-protein byproduct known as cake.”

According to Roberts, research will include studying two different groups of five cattle, which the Roberts own as part of their business, Perry County Land & Cow Company.

“One group will be eating conventional grain. The other will be finished (supplemented) on hemp,” Roberts explained. “That’s not the only thing they’re gong to get. They will still have access to grass. We’ll see. I think we’re anticipating animals that might grow a little faster.”

Elsesser, lifting a handful of industrial hemp seed from the drill’s hopper, says the group was initially nervous about the project.

“We thought it was hush, hush; big secret,” he joked. “But everyone is so interested in this, and we want people to know what this crop is really all about because it could be an amazing opportunity for farmers to diversify.”

Roberts says a natural, lifelong curiosity about agriculture led to completing the research application. From there, she, her husband and Elsesser have become educated on the plant that most consider harmless but is still considered a Schedule I drug by the federal government. It is against federal law to grow any form of cannabis without government approval.

“There is a similar appearance there,” Roberts said, comparing industrial hemp to the marijuana plant of the same family. “Whereas they look quite identical in many ways, they do not share the same attributes. It is not a hallucinogen. It does not share that quality.”

Roberts says a plant expert assisting with the project described the industrial hemp as having only trace amounts of THC, compared to high levels contained in cannabis plants that are smoked to achieve a high or otherwise harvested for recreational and medicinal purposes.

“You would have to smoke the equivalent of a five-foot-round hay bail, which in this case would be a hemp bail,” Roberts said. “And the most you might get was a headache.”

Despite the assertion that industrial hemp is useless to those who might attempt to use it as a drug, Elesser and Roberts say there will be security fencing and other measures in place to protect the research plot.

If everything goes well, Elsesser says the hemp seeds should germinate in about a week and take about 100 days to reach maturity. The group chose seed varieties from Canada that do not grow beyond about five-feet tall. Larger plants would require modified farming equipment in order to harvest the plants, adding cost.

“And we’re really only interested in the seeds right now,” Roberts said.

Despite touting a multitude of uses for industrial hemp including fiber for rope and clothing, oils and biofuel, she says the stalks of the harvested plants will likely be used only for animal bedding at the conclusion of the growing season.

“We’re really excited,” she added. “We are not only the only feed test for cattle in Pennsylvania but to our knowledge, we are the only feed test for cattle in the United States. From the research we’ve done already, we think this is quite a miracle plant. In a few years, who knows? This could be a cash crop for farmers here in our area that can provide another option and revitalize the economy while keeping Perry County and the state agricultural.”

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