by Carly Shonbrun-Siege
July 16, 2019
In the fall of 2011, Dr. Steven Groff, an accomplished orthopedic surgeon, was hit by a car while on his bicycle, changing the course of his life.
Before the accident, Groff helped found and served as the president of OSS Orthopaedic Hospital in York, Pennsylvania. At the same time, he lived on his family’s 125-year-old, 77-acre farm in Dallastown, Pa. The accident caused him to focus his attention on possible business ventures utilizing the farm.
Groff and his family developed Wyndridge Farm into an event space, restaurant, craft brewery and cidery. In January 2019, Groff added hemp growing and production to the list, making him an early adopter of the crop following its recent legalization in the 2018 Farm Bill. With a permit from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Wyndridge Farm became the exclusive grower and processor for the Albright College Hemp Program.
The 2018 Farm Bill removed industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that it is no longer an illegal substance under federal law. The Farm Bill also changed interstate commerce laws to allow hemp and hemp products to be transported within and across state lines.
Hemp’s environmental benefits
In terms of sustainability, Groff sees a “huge opportunity” for anyone interested in growing industrial hemp. The plant grows rapidly and thickly, naturally crowding out the majority of weeds fighting for space. This reduces the need to apply pesticides, which is good not only because it lowers costs, but because it lessens the amount of pesticides that enter the Bay. When agricultural and stormwater runoff flows through fields in which pesticides have been applied, it picks up the chemical contaminants and carries them to the Bay. There are currently no approved pesticides for use on industrial hemp, which means all the hemp in Groff’s contracted farms are grown pesticide-free.
At Wyndridge, seeds are planted with no-till air drills, a type of seeding equipment that uses air pressure to create holes in the soil, causing less disturbance to the soil than planting methods that involve tilling or machine drilling. This increases the capacity of the soil to absorb water, helping to protect it from erosion and reducing polluted runoff. And while young hemp plants require a lot of water, overall, the crop requires four times less water than cotton, a crop used to make similar products.
Hemp can even be used to improve soil health by removing heavy metals from the soil through a process called phytoextraction. Hemp waste material can also be processed into biochar: a permeable, absorbent, carbon-rich biomass created by applying heat to organic material. Biochar retains water and nutrients helping to increase soil health when spread onto nutrient poor soil.
Groff now has 2,000 acres of hemp in contracted farms all over the state. He states that farmers in rural Pennsylvania, who have suffered a drop in the prices of corn and soybeans in recent years, need help. The practices for growing this crop are almost identical to that of growing hemp, and Groff saw that it would be an easy transition for farmers to switch to growing hemp.
Groff hosted a hemp farmer supper earlier this year that sold out with more than 280 participants. “[The event attracted] way more interest than expected,” said Groff, explaining how everyone, from “85-, 90-year-olds to millennials… all want to understand” how to get involved in the industrial hemp industry.
Though industrial hemp and marijuana are members of the same genus, Cannabis, and have been treated similarly by previous federal law, they have very different properties and uses. The most important difference between these two plants is the concentration of compounds that each plant contains, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound in marijuana, and cannabidiol (CBD), the anti-psychoactive compound in industrial hemp. Marijuana plants have high levels of THC and low levels of CBD, while hemp plants have high levels of CBD and low levels of THC, making any psychoactive effect impossible. But, hemp’s high levels of the CBD make it useful for several medicinal applications.
In recent years, a large number of CBD products have appeared on the market, from CBD-infused gummies and snacks to promote relaxation and healthy sleep, to lotions and balms made with CBD used to relieve pain and soothe muscles. Groff said that some are too focused on growing hemp for its CBD, comparing it to the California Gold Rush. However, he believes that processing the entire plant will be a better long-term strategy for Wyndridge Farm.
“There are thousands of uses for industrial hemp,” said Groff in an interview with the York Daily Record earlier this year. This includes everything from fiber and fuel to construction materials and clothing. “Part of the need for Pennsylvania is to determine which to focus on first.”
This September, Wyndridge will install North America’s first HempTrain, a 90,000-square-foot platform that can process 3,000 to 5,000 acres of the crop annually. The HempTrain can process hemp for its hurd (the woody inner part of the hemp stalk), bast (cellulosic fibers in the stalk) and microfiber, which can be used to make multiple different types of fibers and textiles.
“This way, you can capitalize on all three (fiber, seed and cannabinoids),” Groff said.
Groff was excited to learn the bobsled stadium at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will feature a track made from hemp. His own plans include selling hemp hurds for hempcrete, a carbon-negative concrete alternative used for building homes. In March, he launched Farmacy Partners, a retail store and education center all about industrial hemp. The Farmacy is a short drive from Wyndridge Farm, and Groff said it “exists as a community resource built to shed light on the growing body of cannabis science.”
Groff hopes that the HempTrain will “revolutionize hemp processing” by increasing access to hemp processing facilities, opening opportunities for farmers across the state to utilize the platform for their own hemp processing needs.
“This is how the industry gets started,” Groff said.