Out to Change the Fiber of America!

Out to Change the Fiber of America!
Posted by FoM on April 11, 1999 at 06:09:53 PT
 Lancaster County Hemp Dreams. 
Source: Philly News
MOUNT JOY, Pa. -- Call it a pipe dream, but when farmer M. Jane Balmer imagines the future of agriculture in Lancaster County, it is filled with tall, sturdy fields of hemp.
Burned by sagging tobacco sales and worried over sluggish prices for other crops, Balmer has joined a small but increasingly vocal group of farmers in Lancaster County and elsewhere who are looking to boost their fortunes by raising industrial hemp, the nonintoxicating cousin of marijuana."It would fit right in as a replacement for tobacco," says Balmer, 60, a widowed mother of two who raises corn, barley, wheat, alfalfa, soybeans and chickens on two 200-acre farms in this pastoral borough 10 miles from the Susquehanna River.But farmers high on the idea of raising hemp face a major obstacle: Growing the plant, which looks like marijuana but contains much lower levels of the intoxicating chemical THC, has been illegal in this country for much of the last 60 years.Federal officials argue that allowing hemp farming would create problems in enforcing pot laws. In addition, they say, it has little commercial value and is a "golden egg that doesn't really exist."Hemp advocates insist that farmers would find a ready market. Plants and seeds legally imported from China, Canada and elsewhere are already sold in pretzels, sneakers, nutritional supplements and even Frisbee-style disks. They argue that paper products made from hemp are environmentally friendly because they don't kill trees. Some stores even sell lingerie made from soft, silk-like hemp fibers.So when Balmer considers the uses of hemp, she can't help but see dollar signs. A lifelong farmer and county representative for the American Farm Bureau, she has grown tobacco for 40 years but says cigarette makers, facing massive settlements for government and private lawsuits, no longer pay what they used to for her crop."Twenty years back, we had 30,000 acres of tobacco raised in Lancaster County," she says. "This year, we will see 12,000. Twenty years ago, it was a $20 million industry. This year, it may be $7 million. Most of us are selling tobacco at a loss."Though some farmers, especially those in Western agricultural states, have been working with entrepreneurs and even with activist/actor Woody Harrelson to push for the legalization of industrial hemp, government officials say lifting the weed ban would intensify problems in the policing of pot."A potential by-product of hemp production would be a de facto legalization of marijuana cultivation," says Terry Parham, a spokesman for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, adding that fields of industrial hemp could conceal marijuana plants. "We don't consider it prudent to change the status of hemp as a . . . drug."Advocates of industrial hemp scoff at such arguments. They say the plant has 50,000 legal uses and suggest that the restrictions are unfair to law-abiding farmers and a hindrance to entrepreneurs looking to turn the stalks, seeds and oil into products and profits.In Lancaster County, which has a long history as a center of industrial hemp production, farmers plan to meet in New Holland on Friday to discuss the plant. Some will be skeptical, some enthusiastic. All will be looking for answers to tough questions."There's a lot of numbers that have to come together before I can decide if it's feasible," says Joel Steigman, a family farmer from Halifax, Dauphin County. "What does it cost? How much can we really get per acre? What will the yield be? How much will we have to pay for new equipment?" wonders Steigman, 53, whose 200-acre farm produces hay, corn and soybeans as well as beef cattle.Hemp advocates promote the idea that an acre of the plant can fetch upward of $500, compared to the $375 that Lancaster County farmers get for an acre of feed corn.Drug-enforcement officials dismiss those numbers as unrealistic because they are based on the unproved assumption that demand for hemp products will quickly expand if the plant is legalized."The market is there, and we need to start growing," insists Shawn House, a Lancaster businessman who organized Friday's meeting.House, a Libertarian Party member who opposes most government regulations, operates Lancaster Hemp Co. He sells his products, including soaps, health supplements, and clothing made from hemp fiber, oil and seeds, from the trunk of a champagne-colored Ford Crown Victoria that bears a bumper sticker: "Create Jobs, Protect the Environment, Buy American Hemp."House notes that it's legal to import hemp, including sterile seeds. He argues that the prices of hemp products, including a $60 pair of Adidas sneakers, would fall dramatically if the plants could be grown in the United States.But in Pennsylvania, he said, getting farmers to join his cannabis crusade hasn't been easy."I sometimes feel like a lone salmon swimming upstream," he says. "But this is what makes America great: You get an idea, and you run with it."If State Rep. Katie True has anything to say about it, House is in for a marathon. A four-term Republican who represents Lancaster County, True is an antidrug crusader who sympathizes with such farmers as her friend Balmer but who believes that many hemp advocates are using the weed as a smoke screen."It's a bogus issue," True says. "I dearly love my farmers, and I understand their desperation, but I could never support it. It would enable illegal growers to grow marijuana among the crops."Hemp hasn't always been dogged by such concerns.A staple of colonial agriculture, industrial hemp was farmed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. In Lancaster County, it was so common as a crop that the townships of East and West Hempfield were so named.But it has been illegal to grow hemp in the United States since 1937, when federal officials outlawed all forms of cannabis.Ralph Amato believes that was a mistake.In his tie-dyed green hemp-fabric slacks, with strands of graying hair trailing down and brushing the neckline of his T-shirt, Amato, 50, says he is what he appears to be: an ex-hippie who considers hemp a latter-day expression of counterculture rebellion."I'm a hempster," says Amato, a former Kiwanis Club president who likes to golf. "I call myself 'the hemperor of the north.' "Like most of the folks on the hempster bandwagon, Amato has a product to sell -- in his case, pretzels (or, as he calls them, "hempzels") made from sterile, imported hemp seeds by his small New Holland company, No Problem Inc.Amato boasts that the 15 cases he sells each month in Pennsylvania (he claims 250 cases a month in California) are packed with dietary fiber and essential fatty acids -- but with no THC."We say right on the bag that there is no THC," he says. "By taking the casing off the seed, we remove any THC."The lack of a buzz in his bags hasn't stopped Amato from trying to exploit the perception that munching his pretzels is a cheap and legal way to get stoned. His company logo shows a large pretzel with a cannabis leaf above the words "hearth baked, hand rolled, fat free." But Amato says that he has no hidden agenda and that he views drug use as "a dead end."Though some cannabis experts say it would be possible for drug-enforcement agents to distinguish between mature hemp and marijuana plants, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the DEA say the only surefire way to tell them apart is through chemical analysis."People have been saying that you can tell the difference by flying over a hemp field," says Bob Weiner, a spokesman for the White House office, "but our own studies have shown that while you can make a chemical difference, you can't make the distinction from a helicopter."The White House office also questions hemp's viability as a cash crop, citing federal studies that dismiss it as a novelty. Hemp advocates point out that the United States lifted its hemp ban during World War II so that the defense industry could use the fiber. But the White House office said that the hemp industry collapsed after nylon was invented and hemp-farming subsidies stopped.Despite those arguments, some states are trying to determine whether hemp could, indeed, ease financial pressures on farmers. Hawaii already has cleared the way for growing industrial hemp. Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont and Virginia have hemp bills pending. And Iowa, Kansas and Oregon have authorized research on hemp or have recently considered bills calling for legalization.Some shop owners, however, aren't waiting for the laws to change.Two of the largest pro-hemp groups, the North American Industrial Hemp Council and Global Hemp, which promotes "the official fiber of the new millennium," list hundreds of shops that sell hemp products, including the Friendly Chameleon in Philadelphia, Funtasia in New Hope, and Healthwise Natural Foods in Bala Cynwyd."I personally hope it won't be a fad," says Michael Katz, owner of Down to Earth in Manayunk. "If we can use hemp and not cut down a few trees, why not do it? What is the government afraid of?"
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