Hemp stakeholders in Pennsylvania have launched an initiative to support the development of regional supply chains for a wide range of hemp outputs.
The Pennsylvanian Industrial Hemp Engine (PIHE), which this week received $1 million in federal funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), will focus on products for construction, packaging, textiles and renewable energy, as well as land remediation, according to a press release from U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, who announced the grant.
The PIHE aims to “build a plant and place-based economic ecosystem grounded in innovation, education, inclusion, and translation of technology to industrial applications,” according to the organization’s website.
The project, a collaboration among university researchers and private companies, received the funding under the NSF’s Regional Innovation Engines Development program, a new national effort aimed at speeding up the development of technology, advancing competitiveness and creating local jobs.
Needs are great
Cartwright said PIHE needs research into genetics, the propagation of domestic hemp varieties, farmers to grow and harvest hemp, and processing to build up supply chains to turn out products that will reduce greenhouse gases, eliminate plastic waste, and improve soil health and water quality. Workforce education programs are also needed, Cartwright said.
“This grant, made possible by the CHIPS and Science Act, will boost an industry that was once a staple of Pennsylvania’s economy and is again presenting opportunities for new businesses, farm income, good-paying jobs, and climate-friendly, environmentally sound products,” said Cartwright, a Democrat from Moosic who serves as Ranking Member of the House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee.
Vahid Motevalli, Interim Associate Vice Chancellor for Research at Penn State University Harrisburg, a partner in the PIHE, said the project will provide opportunities in research for students and faculty across Pennsylvania’s largest university system.
The initiative is led by Harrisburg-based Vytal Plant Science Research, a biotech non-profit that develops new technologies to help farmers improve crop yields while reducing their environmental impact, promotes regional supply chains and the circular economy, and advances education about sustainable agriculture.
In addition to Penn State other partners on the project are Ben Franklin Technology Partners, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Luzerne County Community College, Lackawanna College, Emory University, DON Processing, and Team PA Foundation.
The NSF announced funding for the first-ever Regional Innovation Engines May 11, granting awards to 44 teams from universities, nonprofits, businesses and other organizations across U.S. states and territories. Each awardee can receive up to $1 million every two years, and up to ten years of total funding. Candidates can also get two years of funding for planning before they officially launch.
PA Fields have dwindled
The Pennsylvania hemp harvest continues to shrink. After recording an estimated 500 acres harvested in 2020, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, fields fell to 310 acres in 2021 and then tumbled to 110 acres last year, figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show.
Like other states, most hemp growing in Pennsylvania following the crop’s legalization under the 2018 Farm Bill was for the production of flowers for CBD. And like other states, Pennsylvania did not escape a crash in the CBD market brought on by a severe oversupply of that derivative which hit the market at the end of 2019. Since that time, the state’s hemp industry has begun the process of shifting production to fiber, what’s sure to be a drawn-out transition.
Hemp has a long history in Pennsylvania. It was first introduced to the state by the early settlers, and it quickly became an important crop for the production of rope, sails, clothing, and paper. The state was one of the leading hemp producers in the United States early last century.