Industrial hemp research plot harvested in Perry County

NEWPORT, Pa. (WHTM) — Pennsylvania’s top agriculture official was present to witness a groundbreaking moment on Thursday.

“We’re making history here in Perry County,” Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said.

Redding and about a dozen other agriculture officials, farmers and media watched with curiosity as modern farm machinery harvested the first crop of industrial hemp grown legally in Pennsylvania in about 70 years. The five-acre plot on the farm owned by Bill and Martha Roberts near Newport is one of 16 research crops sanctioned by the state in 2017.

“We lost 70 years of knowledge about how does this plant actually behave in Pennsylvania,” Redding said. “We think it has great potential.”

Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding (left) inspects a handful of seeds harvested from an industrial hemp research plot near Newport, Perry County.

As a large combine combed the field, removing the upper part of the six-foot-tall plants, Redding examined a handful of hemp seeds. The Perry County research project will focus on the potential nutritional benefits of supplementing the diet of grass-fed beef cattle with a seed byproduct known as cake. Farmers believe the high protein content and easy digestibility of the hemp seeds could enhance the growth of young cows and improve meat quality.

Other projects across the state will examine the success of various types of industrial hemp grown in certain types of soil, as well as test the plant as a natural weed controller.

Advocates believe the once prevalent native plant banned in the 1950’s could be resurrected as a cash crop for Pennsylvania. The plant, which is in the cannabis family, has a similar appearance to marijuana. However, unlike its cousin, industrial hemp contains only trace amounts of THC and is not capable of producing a high for those who would ingest or smoke the plant. Despite the differences, the federal government considers industrial hemp a Schedule 1 narcotic.

“There’s still a mentality at the federal level that this is in the cannabis family and, therefore, it’s treated like the marijuana plant, so we need changes at the federal level,” Redding said. We’re hopeful that in the 2018 Farm Bill, just as Congress did in the 2014 Farm Bill, that we can get further modification and hopefully just complete release of this plant being grown commercially in the United States, which is our desire.”

Jeremiah Elsessor, who manages the hemp crop on the Roberts farm, says a decision was made to harvest the plants earlier than expected. The anticipated 90-day crop grown from Canadian seeds reached full maturity in just 72 days, and seeds were beginning to drop to the ground. A combine used to harvest the plants successfully separated seeds from stalks but left a large amount of green organic material mixed in with the seed.

“It will require some more refining, which will be quite a job,” Elsessor said. “We’ll screen it out by hand. That’s part of the research, and that’s what we signed up for. When we saw that the seeds were just falling off into your hand when you touched the plant, we knew we were close. Some of the seeds are still somewhat green. Nobody could give us a great answer on what to do, so we harvested it. If we jumped the gun a little, we jumped the gun. As far as we’re concerned, we are getting the seeds that we were after, and that is a success.”

The research permit issued to the Roberts allows them to grow up to five-acres of industrial hemp for two more seasons.

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