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Hemp – the rotational crop of the future?

hemp as an ag crop

Some universities are studying hemp that doesn't contain THC and the ag potential some varieties may have in the midwest.

Could industrial hemp be the rotational crop of the future in the Midwest? That's what University of Nebraska, Lincoln (UNL), researchers Ismail Dweikat and Tom Clemente aim to find out.

Containing almost no tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), industrial hemp is the non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana.

"You can get higher smoking a corn plant than you can on this stuff," said Clemente of industrial hemp in a November 2016 Lincoln Journal Star article.

Nevertheless, industrial hemp is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug right alongside its cousin marijuana and the likes of LSD, heroin, and ecstasy. Because of this classification, UNL researchers were required to file an application with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to gain permission to import the hemp seeds before research could begin.

After receiving the long-awaited DEA approval, research began late last year with hemp seeds, imported from Canada and Italy, sown in UNL's east campus greenhouses. Research will continue outdoors the first of May, when two acres of hemp are planted at UNL's research center near Mead, Nebraska.

Dweikat, one of two UNL faculty spearheading the industrial hemp research, was also able to harvest seed from the hemp that grows wild in Nebraska with DEA blessing. The wild hemp seed was started in the greenhouses alongside the imported hemp. Dweikat plans to look at the genetic diversity that exists in the wild hemp population and how it stacks up next to the imported varieties.

However, the greenhouse-grown native hemp will need to be sent to the DEA for further testing and analysis of THC levels. If the native hemp passes inspection, and is under the 0.3 percent THC limit, it has the potential to be planted outdoors and studied further just as its imported counterparts.

The driving force behind the research is largely related to the potential an industrial hemp crop has to give farmers an alternative rotational crop and the economic impact that would have. According to the Hemp Industries Association, 2015 U.S. sales of hemp products reached nearly $600 million with the bulk of the hemp for those products having been grown abroad and imported into the U.S.

"There is a company in Omaha that imports hemp stalks from Canada, then separates and sells the fiber products. If farmers here could grow hemp, it would be a great for the economy in Nebraska and the entire Midwest really. And, there is tremendous interest from farmers looking for a crop with lower inputs that could generate a different source of income for their operations," said Dweikat.

As evidenced by the seed that has already begun germinating in roadside ditches and farmers' fields throughout the Midwest, hemp is well adapted to, and flourishes in, the Midwestern climate. It requires very little water or nitrogen, and has no known diseases or pests that plague it and hinder its productivity.

Industrial hemp has an extremely fibrous stalk. The fiber is easy to process and doesn't require use of harsh chemicals for whitening. It is extremely durable and can be used in everything from clothing to building materials. In addition to the versatility of the fiber, there are a number of ways in which the seeds produce by industrial hemp can be utilized such as in food and fuel production.

Hemp seed contains just about the ideal ratio of Omega 3 and Omega 6 and can provide a good dietary source of those two essential fatty acids. And, at nearly double the oil content, one acre of industrial hemp is far more efficient at producing biodiesel when compared with an acre of soybeans.

The research at UNL will evaluate grain and fiber yields from the different certified varieties of industrial hemp, taking a closer look at how different water and nitrogen applications affect yields. Researchers will also be delving deeper into the uses of hemp and how they could benefit producers.

"Our hope is to work closely with the animal science department to compare the quality of hemp and hemp byproducts with that of forage sorghum as livestock feed," said Dweikat.

Hemp will soon be shooting up in test plots at the research center in southeast Nebraska, however, current laws restrict commercial growth of the crop in many Midwestern states, including Nebraska.

"There is growing interest, but farmers are very pragmatic. They don't want to, and won't, get too excited about hemp, unless they know they have the opportunity to actually grow it. I believe Ismail's research is a step in the right direction to get them the approval they've been waiting for," said Bill Achord, President of the Nebraska Hemp Association.

Nebraska isn't the only state with greenhouses and test plots full of industrial hemp. Section 7606 of the 2014 Farm Bill allowed universities and state departments of agriculture to begin cultivating industrial hemp for limited purposes.

The law allows universities and state departments of agriculture to grow or cultivate industrial hemp for research conducted under an agricultural pilot program or other agricultural or academic research; and only where the growing or cultivating of industrial hemp is allowed under the laws of the state.

Much like Nebraska, most states with that have begun industrial hemp research and pilot programs are focusing on the cultivation of different varieties, which varieties farebest in their specific climates, and the economic effects of commercially grown industrial hemp.

However, according the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) website, other states have more specific research goals. For example:

  • "Colorado S.B. 184 (2014) created an Industrial Hemp Grant Research Program for state universities to research and develop hemp strains that are best suited for industrial applications and develop new seed strains.
  • Kentucky's industrial hemp research program studies the environmental benefit or impact of hemp, the potential use of hemp as an energy source or biofuel, and the agronomy research being conducted worldwide relating to hemp.
  • The North Carolina Hemp Commission studies the best practices for soil conservation and restoration in collaboration with two state universities."

In addition, Colorado and Washington have passed bills that would allow researchers to study the practicality of including hemp and hemp byproducts in animal feed, a practice that had previously been illegal.