Source: The Morning Call

Too often in recent years, Heather Skorinko has struggled to make money growing corn and soybeans on her North Whitehall Township farm, which has been in the family for more than 120 years.

She has especially grown weary of the uncertainty sown by ever-fluctuating prices. Corn farmers have seen earnings this decade jump 50 percent over two years, only to drop for the last four years.

But Skorinko found cause for hope in 2015 when she discovered the movement to legalize cultivation of industrial hemp, the strait-laced sibling of marijuana. Both come from the same fibrous plant, but hemp has a negligible amount of the psychoactive substance that gets you high — delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. And it happens to be a versatile crop, used to make everything from rope and clothing to health food and beauty products.

After doing some research, the 60-year-old grandmother realized she could grow hemp on part of her 170-acre farm without buying any new equipment. She began to make plans with a neighboring farmer in the summer after the state Legislature unanimously approved a research pilot program. Here, finally, was a cash crop that might provide stability for farmers. And it could be a boon to others too, potentially spurring a billion-dollar industry in Pennsylvania, advocates say.

Then in December the state Department of Agriculture released the pilot program’s permitting guidelines. It didn’t take long for Skorinko to realize hemp would remain, at least for another year, virtually off-limits to family farms such as hers.

The department limited permits to 30 and projects to 5 acres, and is charging permit recipients a $3,000 administrative fee. Among a slew of other expenses, it will also charge $100 an hour including travel time for an indefinite number of site inspections, and $200 per hemp sample to test THC levels.

Since 2014, the federal government has permitted the cultivation of hemp for research, and some states have decided such research should include commercial endeavors. Farmers can grow industrial hemp for commercial purposes in at least 16 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Not in Pennsylvania, though. The Department of Agriculture restricted research to hemp fiber and seed despite both federal and state legislators being open to studying any part of the cannabis plant with a THC level beneath 0.3 percent. And perhaps most maddening to prospective growers: The department will not permit projects “for the purposes of general commercial activity.”

In other words: Skorinko would have no way to make any financial return on her investment.

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