Growing ‘green’

By on October 16, 2019

Expanding local hemp farms seek profit

Only a year ago, the notion that Lancaster County farms would grow hemp may have been met with a raised eyebrow, skepticism, or even ridicule.

Flash-forward to fall 2019 and many doubters are now eating their words.

Just ask Del Riley, who is in charge of 10 acres of hemp north of Lititz near Brickerville.

“Lititz really chose us,” Riley said. “We found farms who were willing to take the risk in the venture in 2018. We were one of the first to seed the plant in the past 80 years. Lancaster County used to be a mecca. The soil conditions were ideal.”

Another early adapter is Lititz resident Jonathan Steffy, who also saw the opportunity hemp could afford.

Last year, Steffy, 35, launched Speedwell Forge Organics LLC, a company that grows hemp for its smokable flower, a product similar to which can be found at Jay Solanki’s Friendly Mini Mart & Dollar Store in Ephrata.

“It started out like a fidgit spinner, with only one store having it,” Solanki said.

A Learning Process
Hemp products are literally everywhere these days — Sheetz even has CBD advertising in front of its parking spaces.

While many farmers in the region continue to raise traditional crops like tobacco and corn, many others like Riley and Steffy have taken a different path.

Still, Ben Davies, a Berks County grower, said many are still in a learning process, while participating in a panel discussion about farming practices last Tuesday during the inaugural PennsylvaniaHemp Summit at the Lancaster County Convention Center.

“Hemp farmers are basically all researchers at this point,” Davies said.

Hemp is a species of the cannabis plant –the same one that produces marijuana.

 

Lititz resident Jonathan Steffy stands in the middle of one of his hemp fields in East Earl Township. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Steffy.

New Laws
For decades, federal law did not differentiate it from other cannabis plants, all of which were effectively made illegal in 1937 under the Marihuana Tax Act and formally made illegal in 1970 under the Controlled Substances Act-the latter banned cannabis of any kind. Hemp farming for research purposes was allowed under the 2014 Farm Bill, but the 2018 edition opened the doors to commercial production for the first time in decades. Penn State has been researching hemp since 2017 to provide farmers with production recommendations.

While often there’s a stigma attached to the notion of raising hemp grew due to its close relationship to marijuana, this shifting paradigm, especially for many growers from the Plain sects, has spelled financial relief for many struggling to find the next big cash crop.

Government Oversite
The process of growing begins by applying for an industrial hemp growing permit through the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Applicants must provide contact information, business name, growing location(s), as well as GPS coordinates of their fields. They also must pass an FBI background check. An application fee of $600 (good for up to five growing sites) is also required. Once approved, strict recordkeeping is also a must throughout the entire process from seeding to harvest.

In Pennsylvania, industrial hemp should never be “hot,” or test above the 0.3% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) level, the compound which gives marijuana its psychoactive effect. While some harvests are used for manufacturing goods like clothing, rope, and food; currently, a popular item sourced from hemp is CBD (Cannabidiol) oil — a product which many claim can relieve stress as well as reduce anxiety and depression.

Acres of profits
This year, with permits in hand, Steffy began to grow hemp with the goal to harvest its flower, which many say is a safer alternative to vaping or cigarette smoking due to there being no nicotine in the product. Unlike marijuana, smoking hemp in regular doses will also not get the user high. While he himself owns the land, Steffy hires farmers (many of which are Amish or Mennonite) to perform the day to day work.

“They have the labor behind it which I can’t do,” he says. Although employed full-time in the automotive industry, he’s busy behind the scenes ordering what is needed for his operation. His father acts as the liaison between Steffy and his employees. “He runs everything through me first,” Steffy said of this unique family relationship.

Photo courtesy of Speedwell Forge Organics LLC

His permit process took about four weeks before he was given permission to grow. Currently, Steffy oversees seven-and-one-quarter acres of hemp as well as two greenhouses. His fields are situated on land formerly owned by his grandfather in East Earl. Next year, he hopes to expand that to a total of 17 acres including what he’s planning to oversee in New York State. After cutting and harvesting, his yields will be sold in large wholesale batches to dispensaries across the United States. There, they will be re-packaged and sold to retail locations that carry smokable flower.

In Lancaster County, hemp is typically raised between March and May. The growing process takes approximately 110 days for the plants to reach maturation. But before that can all begin, seeds must be obtained. In many cases, seed brokers provide the necessary provisions to get started. A rule of thumb is that the purer the genetics, the better the final product. For growers interested in harvesting CBD from their hemp, female plants are sought after for their abundance as well as the size of the plant’s flowers, as this is where the largest concentration of CBD can be found.

“A lot of guys got their seed from seed brokers, but I got mine directly from the source of the genetics that were created from Oregon CBD — Seth Crawford out of Oregon,” Steffy said.
Groff North America, a York-based manufacturing startup, drew 250 potential growers to an event in March. Groff ended up working with approximately 20 farms that raised 2,000 acres of hemp.

Steffy’s fields (located on land formerly owned by his grandfather in East Earl), are part of approximately 180 other hemp growing locations across Lancaster County.

Ninety percent of those acres were then harvested. That’s better than what many hemp farmers achieved last year, when too much rain damaged the crop, explained Ryan Dohm, the company’s chief development officer. Like so many other crops, raising hemp involves a large investment of time, research, and risk — throughout the growing season, unexpected results like THC levels spiking due to factors like the hot sun could be an unplanned reality.

“I get worried that some farmers don’t have a lot of knowledge,” Steffy said. “It takes a lot of late nights. You have to treat it like produce — you’ve got to be proactive with fungus and caterpillars.”

It’s this utmost tender loving care that ultimately always pays off for the customer.

“Our vision is to provide certified organic USDA hemp flower, and to be totally transparent,” Steffy added. “No pesticide use.” Next year, his plan is to go retail — he hopes to operate a mobile dispensary in the near future which would sell concentrates, hemp flower in small glass jars, and CBD products. “I am waiting on the release of the USDA regulations before we dive too far into the retail side,” he said. “But we are amping up for an epic release next year for smokable flower on the retail side.” Steffy said he plans to “bring the product to the customer.”

“We can show up to events in Lititz or around Lancaster County like at concerts or outdoor-related events,” he added. Steffy joins a small handful of local growers in the area which also includes Riley, whose harvests go towards medicinal as well as industrial needs.

“The success is going to be measured with what we do with the plants after they are harvested,” Riley said. “The world is chasing CBD, we’ve moved our harvests to other applications.” Riley travels to Lititz about once a week to check on his crops. In 2019, his team planted four genetics. “We’ll have our own genetics to plant in 2020,” he added.

Local use on the rise
While Solanki has stocked many CBD-infused products for several months, he’s noticed a recent elevated interest in their popularity. His store offers liquid “shots” as well as tinctures and topical creams containing CBD oil. He also carries hemp-based products like candy bars, rolling papers, and even pre-packaged hemp cigarettes.

For about $49.99 plus tax, customers can also opt to buy dried hemp flower buds. Packed in a small canister and containing seven ounces of product, consumers can grind, roll, and then smoke the product. Many of these receptacles even brandish a QR code which can be scanned with a smartphone. Once the code registers, users are taken to a website that gives a report of the cannabinoid levels in that particular canister. It’s this level of transparency that both the buyer and the seller not only appreciate, but seek out.

“Customer service is always number 1,” Solanki said.

Hemp cigarettes, which, according to their label, contain 0% THC, are currently being carried on the retail market. Photo by Cory Van Brookhoven.

 

Another Hemp product available in retail stores is Hemp candy bars. Photo by Cory Van Brookhoven.

 

Among other products, the Salcedo’s also carry cb delight — a CBD-infused beverage. Photo by Cory Van Brookhoven.

Anthony and Tiani Salcedo of Lancaster own and operate Smoker’s Marina LLC, a brick and mortar shop at 1873 Lincoln Highway East, Lancaster, which specializes in products made from hemp.

“My wife wanted to help people,” Anthony said of their family-run business. “It started three years ago; she started making hemp jewelry. We opened up the retail store a year and a half ago, and we’re going strong right now.”

The couple stocks items originating from Pennsylvania and Colorado. One local product is the Wild Fox Provisions brand of tinctures, manufactured from hemp grown in Eastern Berks County The company also sells hemp tea, and also plans to offer a lotion among other products in the future. They also sell many of their items each week at Green Dragon Farmers Market and Auction in Ephrata and Root’s Country Market in Manheim. The items range from oils to creams, and even several flavors of cb delight — a canned soda beverage infused with broad-spectrum CBD from hemp extract. Administered under the tongue one drop at time, tinctures, Salcedo says, are especially popular right now.

The Salcedos have also witnessed an increase in demand for these products in recent months.

“A lot of people are catching on to it,” Anthony said. “We’ve had testimonies every day; people telling us that they are so thankful for us being here.”

Miracle cure?

After years of suffering from PTSD and back pain, Jimmy Tinsley, 71, of Lititz, says he’s found relief.

“I entered the service at age 17,” said the now-retired resident. “My dad had to sign for me. You grow up in a hurry.”

After serving two tours in Vietnam, for several years after, he also suffered from lack of sleep.

“I’ve been dealing with it for years,” Tinsley said of the pain.

Anthony Salcedo. Photo by Cory Van Brookhoven.

 

Ben Davies of Wild Fox Provisions speaks about his experience growing hemp. He is joined by, from left, Laura Pottorff of the Colorado Ag Department, Ryan Dohm of Groff North America, Alyssa Collins of Penn State, and crop insurance agent Mark Goodhart. Photo by Phil Gruber.

But for the past 18 months, he’s been self-administering doses of CBD oil through drops from a tincture which he receives via a prescription at a local pharmacy. Tinsley sees a promising future for hemp growing in Lancaster County.

“It’s going to be a thriving crop,” he said. “This has helped me get more sleep than I’ve had in 40 years.”

‘Growing’ locally
The sold-out, inaugural Pennsylvania Hemp Summit, which took place at The Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square Oct. 8, brought together farmers, experts, supporters, and curious parties from across the country to discuss all things hemp.

Eric Hurlock, who serves as the digital editor for Lancaster Farming and also hosts the Lancaster Farming Industrial Hemp Podcast, was overwhelmed by the turnout of the first annual event.

“There has been such a huge interest in this crop in the state, and the PA Department of Agriculture has been especially encouraging — so I figured the event would be well-attended,” Hurlock said “I think networking locally is key to our success here in Lancaster,” Steffy added about the summit. “We are very well known for our land and farming practices here so keeping hemp local is key.”

Cory Van Brookhoven is a staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your comments at cvanbrookhoven@lnpnews.com or 717-721-4423. 

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