Why don't we think about growing our homes locally?

That was one question raised at the Western PA Hemp Fiber Educational Series inaugural session, held Thursday at Disability Options Network's site at the former Thaddeus Stevens School on Harrison Street on the city's East side. The forum combined industry leaders in the production of hemp with county politicians and citizens for more than three hours of talks, a question-and-answer segment and the ability to touch — and eat — products made from hemp. 

But first, as the forum started out, what is hemp?

Lori Daytner, vice president of program development, opened the forum and explained the differences between hemp and marijuana, likening their differences to those of oranges and lemons — both are citrus fruits, but also very different. Hemp has only trace amounts of THC, the chemical which is responsible for marijuana's psychological effects. 

Keynote speaker Fred Strathmeyer, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary of Plant Industry & Consumer Protection, reminded audience members of some of hemp's state-wide regulations and other legalities. He said as much noise and popularity as there is surrounding CBD oil, which is an active ingredient in cannabis, there is also an air of uncertainty around hemp. 

"As much as we need to learn about the crop, the people need to learn about the crop as well," Strathmeyer said. "We have to educate the public." 

Hemp, which looks exactly like the green, leafy marijuana plants, has the potential to replace cotton in the future and will also be big in the construction business, Daytner said, relaying predictions from industry leaders at conferences.

"Forget marijuana," Shawn House, a hemp historian who also produces food made from the plant, said during his presentation. 

House mentioned marijuana is "a slang term" used only by lawyers, politicians and "newbies."

"Cannabis is medicine," House said. "Hemp is agriculture."

While House contracts with food companies and makes his own brand of hemp pretzels, others spoke on the plant's ability to transform the construction and housing industry. 

Cameron McIntosh, president and owner of Americhanvre LLC, said while building walls from hemp-based products is more expensive in the short-term, it can help defray energy costs and is safer.

"It's damn-near fireproof," McIntosh said. 

DON put on the event because it is a grower of hemp for fiber. The organization is actively seeking farmer-partners to grow hemp to supply its planned decortication facility.

"The purpose of today is to inform everybody of what we do, what we like to do and we'd like to bring the state-level of cooperation ... to other endeavors that DON has undertaken to the hemp industry," Phil Berezniak, an attorney representing DON, said. 

psirianni@ncnewsonline.com

Digital editor

Pete Sirianni is the News' digital editor. Previously, he worked at The Bradford (Pa.) Era. Sirianni is a 2016 IUP graduate, earning a degree in journalism and public relations. Contact him at psirianni@ncnewsonline.com or on Twitter at @PeterSirianni.

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