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The hemp farmer of Lancaster County

LIFESTYLE | A surprising apologist for the cannabis plant hails from Amish territory

Steve Groff stands in a field of cannabis at Cedar Meadow Farm in Lancaster County, Pa. Photo by Matt Steinruck

The hemp farmer of Lancaster County
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LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa., might seem an unlikely place for growing hemp. After all, it’s Amish Country, a hub of tradition, a land of horses, buggies, covered bridges, and conservatism. And local farmer Steve Groff seems an unlikely advocate for the cannabis plant. His Mennonite upbringing taught him to avoid marijuana.

Yet in the spring of 2019—the first time he could legally do so—Groff planted several acres of cannabis varieties bred specifically for CBD and hemp. Now, five years later, Groff still grows CBD but is increasingly focused on hemp. He plans on 80 acres this year and is teaming up with other farmers to grow several hundred. U.S. farmers grew 28,000 acres of hemp in 2022, signaling a change in perspective toward the crop.

The cannabis varieties Groff grows contain only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive chemical that can give someone a “high.” He understands the confusion some people might have about the plants, and he likes to clear the air. As he explains it, banning hemp or CBD “would be like banning sweet corn if popcorn made you high.”

Since high school, Groff has been a visionary, quick to experiment with plants that promise a better future. Forty years ago, frustrated by erosion on his parents’ farm, he began researching the soil-building benefits of cover crops. Over the years, he’s become well known in agricultural circles for innovations in cover crops and no-till farming. With hemp, he sees another opportunity for innovation.

People have grown hemp for thousands of years, using it for clothing, ropes, or sails (the word canvas comes from cannabis). The plant was important in early America. Even George Washington grew it, and just days before he died asked about hemp seeds for the coming spring.

By the 1930s, the list of hemp products was in the thousands. But converting the plant into usable material had always been tedious, and hemp had fallen out of favor with U.S. farmers.

In February 1938, Popular Mechanics announced a machine set to revolutionize agriculture, create thousands of jobs, and reduce “foreign fibers that now flood our markets.” The new machine was a decorticator, designed to process hemp.

Despite the article and its hopeful title—“New Billion-Dollar Crop”—the dream died, a casualty of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. For the next 80 years, hemp was effectively banned in the United States.

Groff discusses the growing of cannabis at a hemp field day at his farm.

Groff discusses the growing of cannabis at a hemp field day at his farm. Photo by Cheri Groff

When the Farm Bill of 2018 legalized hemp again, the dream returned.

Though THC is present in all varie­ties of cannabis, by law hemp and CBD cultivars like those Groff grows may contain no more than 0.3 percent of it—unlike the 10 to 20 percent or more found in recreational marijuana. THC was not identified as the intoxicating culprit in cannabis until 1964, which explains why, in 1937, baby and bath­water both had to go.

Ask him about hemp’s virtues, and Groff is happy to oblige. He will explain that from the stems, seeds, and flowers come textiles, insulation, hardwood flooring, supplements, green building materials, and biodiesel. Carmakers like BMW use the fibers in body panels, dashboards, and seats. The plant sequesters carbon and absorbs heavy metals from polluted soil. All this in a renewable, rotational crop. (CBD, a separate extract, is commonly used to treat conditions like anxiety, insomnia, or chronic pain, although research on its effectiveness is mixed. The FDA has approved it as a seizure treatment.)

If any plant that God has made has more uses, I don’t know of it. From a simple Christian stewardship perspective, this plant has a lot to offer.

Despite those practical benefits, Groff has met some skepticism. When he created a hemp maze in his fields ­several years ago, for example, a local Christian advertiser declined his request to announce it. Groff says he understands why. But he hopes education will change minds.

Groff is a professing Christian, and he sees cannabis as evidence of a kind Creator. “If any plant that God has made has more uses, I don’t know of it,” he says. “From a simple Christian stewardship perspective, this plant has a lot to offer.” Cannabis, like all created things, can be abused, but that is not a reason to avoid it altogether, he says.

Farmers like Groff have their headaches, though. First, there’s a knowledge gap. With few exceptions, it’s been over 80 years since hemp was grown in the United States. For tips, Groff scours publications from a century ago and queries international connections he’s made over the years.

Hemp farmers also lack infrastructure. “We’ve now got the cars, but no roads,” Groff says. Hemp isn’t easily harvested or made ready for buyers without specialized equipment. Farmers must adapt existing machines or pool funds to buy processors that can prepare their harvest for market. They can’t simply haul a load of hemp to a local mill.

Then there’s red tape. The federal ban has been lifted, but state regulations remain. Groff finds it ironic that even with a steady push to legalize recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania, he and other farmers must follow strict rules to grow hemp, including background checks, fingerprinting (“all 10 fingers!”), and crop inspections. Any crop that creeps above the allowable THC stands the risk of being destroyed.

Seeing past the challenges, Groff is enthusiastic about the future. His farm is only a dozen miles or so from the townships of East and West Hempfield, reminders that hemp was once a big crop in Pennsylvania.

For his part, Groff is doing all he can to make it thrive again. “There’s something big on the horizon with this plant. Its time has re-come.”


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