The Future of Hemp on Pennsylvania Farms
February 5, 2020
The future appears bright for Pennsylvania farmers who want to get into the hemp growing business. According to www.agriculture.pa.gov, 324 permit holders planted and grew approximately 4,000 acres of hemp during the 2019 season. This was the third year that hemp was grown in the commonwealth after having been banned for approximately 80 years. “When we started this process, we never thought we could be where we are now. We see a future for what we are doing,” said Richard Cross, of Carlton Farms, a certified organic and Biodynamic farm in Montrose. He and his partner, Jennie Clifford, started growing hemp in 2019. They planted 25,000 plants on 18 acres. He said the crop didn’t take away from anything that was already planted on the farm. It only added to it. “We continue to do what we did before. We still have the CSA and sheep. In 2020, we are, however, streamlining by eliminating chicken and pigs. The cost of feeding chicken and pigs is astronomical,” he said.
But growing hemp doesn’t come cheap. Cross said, “We had to spend a lot of money to do what we did. A single seed cost $1. There was also the equipment and machinery. We also spent money putting plastic on it with irrigation. In the end, it was so expensive putting it down and taking it up. Never again will we use plastic. The plants that grew without plastic were fine.” But the biggest part of the process was manual labor. About 20 people, including 6 Binghamton University interns, helped with the planting, cultivating, harvesting and processing of the crop through the end of December. Cross said, “You have to strip buds off the branches and then store them when dry. On average, we picked 1,000 plants a day but sometimes, 3,000 plants a day were picked and processed.”
The farm, according to Cross, is doing something unique with the finished product – selling directly to the consumer. “There is no other farm we spoke with that is interested in selling directly to the consumer. What we are doing is very different. The market for biomass is flooded. If all we were doing was biomass, it would be a disappointing process. People are talking to us about products. We already make valuated products. We are comfortable making and selling directly to the consumer rather than wholesale channels,” he said.
The farm had a successful “Pick Your Own Hemp Day” last October. Over 100 people showed up. They charged $35 a pound or a $100 for a plant. “People with whole families came out. People cut it like they were cutting a Christmas tree. It cut across all socioeconomic levels. People who didn’t have a car walked here,” he said. He estimates about 80% of those who came had illnesses, aches and pains or conditions that they use products that contain legal marijuana or hemp, including salves and creams. “People were very happy because they know what they are getting, putting on their skin and ingesting,” Cross said. They make their own products, like tinctures, salves, creams, tea, brownies and add it to food. “We think of it like an herb. You can’t get high from it. Not enough THC. It has a mellowing effect. People use it for sleeping better. It takes pain away. Makes life more livable. You don’t realize how many people are in pain. Someone who had MS said it was the only thing he was taking that helped him,” he said.
Looking ahead to this year, Cross said they plan on maintaining the same production level but with fewer acres and plants, plant earlier with more productive varieties and will allow the public to pick their own hemp every week when it is ready to be harvested.
Brown Hill Farms, Lemon Township, Wyoming County is doing something different with the hemp industry – they are a contracted grower. That means they don’t hold a permit but the permit holder supplies the seed. Instead, the farm does the planting and full cultivation and most of the harvesting. In 2018, the farm produced industrial hemp but changed to growing 94 acres of CBD product last year. Scott Brown said there is more potential with CBD and that he plans on still being a contracted grower this year, but may grow a little bit of his own product. He stressed it was a very expensive crop to grow and being a contracted grower means learning how to grow it without the financial risk. Aside from more manual labor and adding some equipment, the crop was just added into the farm’s rotation. The farm continues to focus on raising beef and growing vegetables, hay, and sunflowers and having roadside stands. Brown has some advice for those looking to get into the industry: “Don’t jump in full throttle. It is high risk. Start out slow. Don’t get in over your head.”
For more information on Carlton Farms, visit their website: https://carltonfarms.net/. You can also follow them and Brown Hill Farms on Facebook.