READING (TNS) — The 2019 growing season was a painful, learning process for hemp farmer Steve Pugliese.

“We had major weed issues,” said Pugliese, who planted 255 acres of industrial hemp in Jefferson Township.

Before hemp stretched as far as the eye could see on Pugliese’s Berks County farm near Bernville, the fields were planted in corn, hay and soybeans.

After being banned since 1937, hemp was legalized in December 2018 with the signing of the 2018 Farm Bill, which removed the crop from the federal Controlled Substances Act. Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp — which refers to the industrial use of the stalk and seed — has 0.3% or less of THC, the chemical in the flowers of the plant that gives users a high. Not only do growers have to be permitted under the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, but they have to periodically test their fields and undergo random testing, and renew their permits every year.

Three markets exist: grain and seed, which are consider agricultural uses; and CBD oil, which is horticultural.

Industrial hemp is expected to produce $2.6 billion in revenue nationally by 2020, making it a great opportunity for farmers seeking a rotational and cash crop, said Sen. Elder Vogel Jr., chairman of the Senate Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee at a meeting in Harrisburg.

The meeting was held to hear from some hemp advocates in light of Senate Bill 335, introduced by Sen. Judy Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat. The bill would allow industrial hemp as food products.

In Pennsylvania, 5,000 acres of hemp are being grown in 800 locations across 60 counties, according to the PDA. For the 2019 growing season, there were 324 permit holders.

Hemp has unlimited uses, from textiles to building materials, animal bedding and food, but there is no infrastructure in Pennsylvania for selling the grain and fiber.

Infrastructure for hemp “is still pretty lacking,” says Erica Stark, executive director of the National Hemp Association and its sister group, the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council.

“I’m hearing plans about infrastructure that hopefully will come to fruition, but nothing is in place,” Stark said.

On Oct. 29, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the establishment of the U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program. This provides a regulatory framework for the fledgling industry. The federal ag department’s marketing services issued its Interim Final Rule for hemp production, advancing the development of hemp production in the U.S.

Basically, this move finalizes the — federal — framework in time for the 2020 growing season.

Regulation is desperately needed at the state level, Stark said.

That’s because under Pennsylvania law, industrial hemp remains on the Controlled Plant and Noxious Weed list. Once the hemp leaves the field, it’s no longer under the purview of the Department of Agriculture.

That’s a good thing, because controlling the plant paves the way to more hemp being allowed to be planted throughout the state, says Schwank.

“That was part of our application to the federal government,” Schwank said about hemp remaining on the controlled plant list.

After passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, Pennsylvania was quick to send its hemp plan to the USDA, being the second state to submit, she said.

Having a precise plan for oversight of hemp sends a message to federal officials that Pennsylvania is ready to expand on the federal opportunity, she said.

“It’s a bridge mechanism to growing more hemp,” Schwank said.

Meanwhile, hemp processors in Pennsylvania are not legally required to have a license to do their work, Stark said.

“That’s is a problem, because without a license, a hemp processor has no protection that is operating lawfully under the protection of a government agency,” she said.

The Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council has seen cases of Pennsylvanians arrested and charged with possession of marijuana, when what they had was legal hemp.

“Industrial hemp products are regulated by several different federal and state mandates, which can be confusing,” according to the Industrial Hemp Program FAQs at www.agriculture.pa.gov.

“It is the responsibility of the permit holder to ensure any products or substances derived from industrial hemp meet the requirements of all state and federal laws and regulations,” according to PDA.

Bills have been introduced to remove hemp from the controlled plant list, and Stark said she is hopeful the proposed legislation will be passed.

Farmers are moving forward, which Stark calls “the scary part.”

“It’s like a genie that you can’t put back in the bottle,” she said, adding, “There are significant risks (for farmers) that shouldn’t be there.”

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