AP NEWS

Somerset County farmers consider hemp as an alternative

May 13, 2019

Some farmers across the country have spoken publicly about the possibility of replacing their soybean crops with hemp as a result of the disappearing market for soybeans that stems from the trade war with China. It’s too late in the season for Somerset County’s farmers to make the shift, but at least one farmer in the community has looked into it.

“I’ve read a lot stuff about hemp,” said Tom Croner, a soybean farmer in Berlin. “I think the infrastructure is probably not developed enough to have the whole country shift over to that. It takes time to get plants and so forth built and get the conversion made.

“It does have some hope. It’s always good to have diversity in our crops. That would be a plus. If it opens up another market, that would be great. But I think it will take a while for that market to get established.”

President Donald Trump increased his tariff rate on Chinese goods from 10% to 25% this month. Previously his tariffs had been faulted for the struggles of soybean farmers, who saw the Chinese market disappear as a reaction to the administration’s policy.

The American Soybean Association issued a news release on the matter that included comments from its President Davie Stephens.

“We have heard and believed the President when he says he supports farmers, but we’d like the President to hear us and believe what we are saying about the real-life consequences to our farms and families as this trade war drags on,” Stephens said. “Adding to current problems, it took us more than 40 years to develop the China soy market. For most of us in farming, that is two thirds of our lives.

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“If we don’t get this trade deal sorted out and the tariffs rescinded soon, those of us who worked to build this market likely won’t see it recover in our lifetime.”

Kroner said local farmers have felt a great deal of uncertainty and hype from the trade talks. Most have a wait-and-see mentality.

“I know there is speculation on how it will affect things,” Kroner said. “The commodities business is quite often feast or famine. I guess again for the proverbial is we’ll hope for better times. We’re into the planting season, so it’s too late to make any changes in our practices at this point because of seed availability and because the purchase has already been made.”

Could hemp be soybeans’ inevitable replacement, though? Hemp farming was legalized by the 2018 Farm Bill signed by the president. The bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, places full federal regulatory authority of hemp with USDA, and allows state departments of agriculture to file hemp programs plans and regulate hemp cultivation per their state specific programs, according to Vote Hemp, an advocacy group for hemp farmers.

Vote Hemp consulted with state agriculture officials and calculated that approximately 77,731 acres of hemp crops were planted across 23 states during 2018 in the U.S., 40 universities conducted research on hemp cultivation, and 3,544 state hemp licenses were issued across the country. Data from market research by Hemp Business Journal supports an estimate of total retail sales of hemp food, supplements and body care products in the United States at $553 million.

Bill Hunsberger, a soybean farmer in Davidsville, went to a meeting about hemp agriculture. He said the problem is there isn’t really a market for hemp in Pennsylvania. So it didn’t seem any better an option at the time than soybeans did.

“But when I went soybeans weren’t quite as bad as they are now,” Hunsberger said. “It might be something to look into. But I’ll continue to investigate it because soybeans are terrible.”

Hemp Business Journal has also reviewed sales of clothing, auto parts, building materials and various other products, and estimates the total retail value of hemp products sold in the U.S. in 2017 to be at least $820 million.

Croner acknowledged it has promise.

“But I can’t wave a magic wand and have that started immediately,” Croner said. “I don’t see it as an immediate cure to the economics of farming.”

Joel Rotz, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said hemp markets are not developed to a point where it will be huge acreage shifts from soybeans to hemp as an alternative crop. Depressed soybean prices are having an impact on planting decisions nationwide, he said, but Pennsylvania farmers grow more for local animal feed needs.

“With little profit projected for other row crops such as corn, planting decisions are probably being more heavily impacted by continued wet weather that needs to break real soon,” Rotz said. “The Farm Bureau remains very concerned with the ongoing trade dispute with China and others at a time of great uncertainty and economic difficulties for our state and nation’s farmers. It’s just another punch in the gut at a time when farmers can’t catch their breath.”