In a post last month, I wondered if recently-legalized industrial hemp would become a new Amish cash crop – perhaps replacing controversial tobacco, most often seen grown by farmers in the Lancaster County Amish community.

Another article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has shed more light on Amish involvement in hemp cultivation, now essentially in its first year being legally raised like any other crop.

Photo by Katherine Frey/Washington Post

Industrial hemp, which is related to marijuana but which by law must contain less than 0.3% THC (versus THC levels of 5% to 20% in marijuana) offers the prospect of a high-return crop which Amish can cultivate on limited acreage, thus helping to pay off farm mortgages in an area where land prices are sky-high.

One question I had then is, how many Amish are involved? That’s still not made clear, but it sounds like a good bit more than the two farmers mentioned in the original article:

“A lot of the folks with hemp are Amish who are growing it for investors,” said Mr. Graybill. “We are by far the largest county in the state as far as acreage and investment. We have a lot to gain — or a lot to lose. But I’m still hopeful.”

Lancaster County is called a “historic capital of hemp” in the piece, and it’s being plugged as a key area for the new industry. Lancaster city will host the first-ever Pennsylvania Hemp Summit in a few days. Indeed, even local township names – East and West Hempfield – reflect the area’s hemp-growing roots.

What kind of money can be made? Some suggest that hemp could bring in $50,000 an acre, while one expert proposes a more conservative figure in range of $10,000 would be more realistic.

Still, that is a lot more than the several hundred dollars per acre that corn brings, and would handily beat tobacco, which yields “a couple thousand an acre.”

What else makes hemp cultivation attractive? It seems that Lancaster locals are seeing hemp as a way to preserve the agricultural nature of the county in the face of development pressures, a long-running concern.

There is also the “natural-medicine appeal” of CBD oil, a currently trendy product made from hemp which has been attributed with positive effects on ailments as diverse as anxiety, seizures, pain, and insomnia:

The Amish see hemp as a way to preserve their agricultural futures, he said. The former hemp farmlands in the townships of East and West Hempfield are now largely planted with tract homes. There’s hope that hemp might save large swathes of farmland in the rest of Lancaster County.

The Amish initially were reticent about hemp’s similarity to marijuana, and concerned about marijuana’s psychoactive THC. “But once they understood that the CBD in hemp was good for you, they said ‘OK, I get it. I’m all in’.”

It sounds as if English and Amish are partnering together in many instances, via co-ops or direct partnerships. One English farm family profiled describes the labor-intensive approach their Amish partners bring:

The Stehmans partnered with their Amish neighbors. They are harvesting hemp by hand, using saws to cut through the thick and bushy stalks, some of which are up to four inches in diameter.

“All of our cultivation and irrigation was laid by horses,” she said. “The ground was worked by horses. Everything is horses and hands.”

Stehman’s Amish neighbors are trying to learn everything they can about hemp. “They were really interested in the medicinal aspects of it. It’s a crop we, and they, feel good about growing. And with the fiber and the grain it will go on to help the world. That’s a big reason why we’re all in it.”

Again the natural medicine appeal appears in this anecdote – something that stands in stark contrast to harmful tobacco, which many Amish object to.

Optimism and enthusiasm for the potential of the burgeoning hemp market come through strong in this piece.

Still, nothing is guaranteed, and there is risk involved, as with any crop. A glut of producers chasing a hemp “gold rush” could also mean that prices end up nowhere near expected levels.

So it remains to be seen whether this becomes a new foundation of Amish agriculture, at least in high-dollar-real-estate places like Lancaster County, or if it is destined to be a niche crop or passing fad.

But if it does prove a success for those Amish who raise it, expect to see more jump on the hemp bandwagon, and perhaps not just in Lancaster County.

Get the Amish in your inbox