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Partnership to develop and expand Pennsylvania's hemp industry

A legally planted field of industrial hemp.
amadea / Getty Images
A legally planted field of industrial hemp.

Once outlawed for over 80 years, industrial hemp in Pennsylvania received a boost last week when a company in Luzerne County was selected to develop an industry accelerator program.

Vytal Plant Science Research, a biotechnology nonprofit based in Hazleton, will use a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to expand the commonwealth’s hemp industry and find new uses for the plant. The money comes from NSF’s new Regional Innovation Engine program, which doled out money to 44 organizations across the country to develop collaborative partnerships.

Vytal’s CEO Thomas Trite joins other technology company heads, researchers, growers and a large advisory group in his role as the Pa. Industrial Hemp Engine’s development leader.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2018 farm bill removed hemp from a list of controlled substances, allowing commercial growers to start production after decades of prohibition. The U.S. outlawed the growth of hemp along with marijuana in 1937, briefly lifting the ban during WWII. Hemp and marijuana are the same species of plant, but hemp has less than 0.3% of the intoxicating chemical THC.

Dr. Mary Lou D'Allegro, vice president of academic affairs at Luzerne County Community College, is also on the state’s Industrial Hemp Engine leadership team.

D’Allegro said hemp is already known for its fibers used in ropes and textiles, but there are other lesser-known applications for the plant. Research into bioplastics has expanded hemp’s use in green building construction, especially in adhesives and siding, as well as in food packaging.

In a video on hemp innovations, the Pa. Department of Agriculture highlights companies that process other building materials like hemp “wood” flooring and hemp “concrete” in residential homes.

Scientists are also looking into how the plant can reduce pollution levels, D’Allegro said.

“There’s some research being done for carbon sequestration… absorption that hemp or part of the hemp plant can do to reduce carbon emissions or greenhouse gases by up to 80%,” she said.

Luzerne County Community College will play a part in workforce development in the hemp industry, according to D’Allegro. Another local partner in the engine, Lackawanna College offers agricultural programs that work with hemp, while other academic institutions will lead the way in genetic research.

Penn State Harrisburg has already partnered with Vytal to learn how industrial hemp can be used in biofuels and in reclaiming abandoned mine land.

Industrial hemp differs from floral hemp, which is produced for CBD and medicinal uses. The Industrial Hemp Engine will focus on the plant’s fiber, seed and grain, according to the partnership’s website.

Despite a federal ban, state law permitted growers to plant industrial hemp for research purposes in 2017, with only 16 permits issued in a pilot program. Last year, the state agricultural department issued 275 hemp growing permits and more than 50 hemp processing permits.

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's All Things Considered. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.

You can email Tom at tomriese@wvia.org