Bill and Martha Roberts watch from their living room as black and red Angus cattle drink from a trough and soak up the warm afternoon sun on their 500-acre farm in Juniata Twp.

Within the next month or so, they could be the first legal hemp farm in Perry County in more than 80 years, using the controversial yet useful plant to feed their cattle.

The Roberts’ plan is one of 16 pilot research projects through the state Department of Agriculture to grow industrial hemp this year and test its viability across multiple regions and industries, from food additives to plastics manufacturing, rope and cattle feed.

The state legalized industrial hemp last year when Gov. Tom Wolf signed Act 92, legislation allowing the plant to be grown in the state.

The ag department announced the project awards in March, including the Roberts’ project to grow hemp to produce feed for their 250 cattle. They won’t be able to sell the feed, but they’re planning to see whether it helps them produce bigger, healthier cattle.

“(Hemp) hasn’t been legal since the 1930s,” said Bill Roberts, “so a lot of this is going to be trial and error.”

Martha Roberts said there’s some research from Canada, Europe and elsewhere that hemp feed provides more complete proteins to cattle, and is easier to digest, which means healthier animals and less need for antibiotics.

They will plant 5 acres of hemp on their farm, then harvest and process it for both feed and oil that can be turned into biodiesel.

The long road

At first, they weren’t sure they’d even get the research permit.

The state had entertained 18 applications for the hemp pilot, according to the ag department. It awarded 16 projects. One applicant dropped out before the awards.

“Here we go,” Martha Roberts said, remembering the day the project awards were announced, “I know it, we’re one of the two that didn’t get it.”

The state did award them the project, and now everyone is excited about the prospects of having a new commercially viable cash crop for the county’s agriculture economy.

“It could make more Perry County farms profitable and help keep them running,” Bill Roberts said.

It would help farms by providing diverse crops that add revenue when prices drop on others, like corn or soy.

Eventually, if the state clears regular hemp farming, there could be enough growers to warrant an industrial processing facility in the county, too, Roberts said. In every case, it means economic development and jobs.

Martha Roberts is chairperson of the Perry County Economic Development Authority. Broadening the county’s agricultural economy and making cross-industry links to other sectors is a long-standing goal.

Bill Roberts’s firm, IBS Development, will build a medical cannabis facility in Penn Twp. if PA Options for Wellness, a pharmaceutical company, receives a license from the state.

Herd manager Jeremiah Elsessor of Millerstown is reviewing the cattle, prepping fields, and waiting like everyone else.

“We’re anxious to see how it works because the cattle are all grass-fed now,” Elsessor said.

A problem is that it’s less than a month from planting season, and they still don’t have hemp seeds which will come from Canada. The project is being delayed by state and federal government paperwork.

Government first

The hemp plant is the same as cannabis, only it has almost none of the psychoactive chemicals, notably THC, that produce the “high” associated with recreational marijuana.

Hemp has so little THC there would be no way to smoke it and get high, according to the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council, which promotes industrial hemp.

However, cannabis in all its forms has been illegal since the 1930s. Eventually, hemp was added to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) list of Schedule 1 narcotics, along with heroin, marijuana and hallucinogens like LSD.

Proponents argue that because hemp has thousands of uses and isn’t a recreational drug, it should be removed from the listing.

“We’re very hopeful that we can get some hemp legislation on a federal level and get the industry going nationally,” said Erica McBride, the council’s secretary and treasurer.

Other states, including Kentucky and Colorado, already have a hemp industry, but Pennsylvania decided to import seed from Canada.

The state received an import number from the DEA in March and is waiting on a permit, said Bonnie McCann, a state ag department spokesperson.

Once the DEA clears everyone in the research projects, the state can buy the seed, import it, and ship it to the research projects.

“Our applicants are very excited, and everyone here is excited, too,” McCann said.

Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding expressed similar enthusiasm for industrial hemp when he spoke to the Perry County Chamber of Commerce on April 7.

But first, the DEA has to do its work, and that takes a long time, McBride said.

The delay isn’t about Pennsylvania specifically, just that the DEA has to investigate a lot of people importing massive seed quantities, which creates a backlog.

That could’ve been avoided if Pennsylvania had bought from another hemp state, like Kentucky, which has been growing for three years, she said.

“If we could buy the seed from Kentucky, we could be planting sooner,” McBride said.

The other problem with the pilot system is that potential companies wanting to invest in a Pennsylvania hemp industry don’t have incentive at this point to take on the risk, she said.

McCann said the ag department doesn’t have a time line for when it will be cleared to import the hemp seeds.

What’s old is new

Pennsylvania, like Kentucky, has a history in hemp growing, said Les Stark, a council board member and historian.

There were more than 100 hemp mills in Lancaster County alone between the 1700s and mid-1800s, and similar numbers in every other central county.

“It was a huge industry in Perry County and all of central Pennsylvania,” he said.

One of the obvious remnants of that industry are conical millstones, which were almost exclusively used for hemp milling, Stark said. Communities often mislabel them as gristmill stones, but they are all that’s left of the once important hemp industry in the U.S. that made rope for ship rigging, paper, clothing, oils and other items.

Today, if small farms are going to be profitable in the long-run from hemp, the state will have to lift the 5-acre cap on how much can be planted, McBride said. It’s all about margins, just like other crops.

“If you’re growing only 5 acres,” she said, “and you have to pay $3,000 in fees, that’s not a huge margin.”

Back at the Roberts ranch, there’s more work to be done. They have to buy equipment for processing, including a modest mill, and equipment to harvest the crop.

“Hopefully, we’ll be ahead of the game when they do allow it,” Bill Roberts said. “At least that’s the plan.”

Jim T. Ryan can be reached via e-mail at jtryan@perrycountytimes.com

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Juniata Twp. farmers pilot hemp research
PennLive.com
HempCattle.jpg A GROWING FIELD? — Owners Martha and Bill Roberts and herd manager Jeremiah Elsessor (left to right) review the young calfs and mothers in their Angus cattle herd at the Juniata Twp. ranch. They plan to grow hemp on the farm this year …

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