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Researchers Rush To Answer Questions About Newly-Legal Hemp Crops

Rachel McDevitt
Alyssa Collins, Director of the Penn State Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center, holds hemp seeds grown as part of a research crop.

Alyssa Collins says she's been fielding around five phone calls every day from people with questions about hemp--and that's not even counting the emails.

Collins directs Penn State's Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Lancaster County, where researchers are part of a multi-state, USDA-supported study into different varieties of hemp that can be used for food and fiber.

Pennsylvania approved more than 300 permits to farm industrial hemp this growing season, after Congress loosened restrictions on the crop last year.

Hemp was long banned because of its relationship to marijuana, but it doesn't have enough of the psychoactive compound THC to produce a high.

So now, researchers like Collins are trying to clear up uncertainties about the crop. 

"A lot of the information we have is anecdotal and research really hasn't been done that's been replicated and published," Collins said. 

She added, because so many farmers are operating on thin margins, its important they have as much information as possible to aid their decision on whether to try hemp.

In addition to looking at what strains of the plant do well in Pennsylvania's climate, Collins's team plans to explore harvest considerations.

"Because then we can tell farmers, OK, use this piece of equipment, harvest at this time, and let it sit in the field before baling--or don't," Collins said. "Or maybe you can just go out there with some of your regular equipment and take it off and get it processed right away." 

Because of the so-far wet summer, Collins said they just got seeds for the multi-state study in the ground last week. 

Separately, the team is growing a few dozen specialized plants that can be used to test CBD oil production. CBD oil is growing in popularity as a health supplement and may provide a big payoff for growers. However, Collins said seeds for these plants and the cultivation process are much more expensive than plants grown for food or fiber.