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Industrial hemp undergoes 32-state reality-check testing

Ross Duffield standing in tall hemp
HUGE POTENTIAL: Rodale Institute’s Ross Duffield sees organic and weed control potentials in this research plot.
Research projects in 32 states are exploring industrial hemp’s potential. New York and Pennsylvania have 26 projects underway.

Ross Duffield is excited about the potential of his newest crop plots — thickly planted, tall hemp. Drilled in early June, most varieties topped 10 feet by late July. Now, Rodale Institute’s farm manager is looking forward to harvesting the research plot, possibly in late September. And it’s legal!

Hemp may be an ancient crop. Yet its potential as a new crop is being extensively studied across the country since industrial hemp research was authorized under the 2014 Farm Bill. New York and Pennsylvania are two of the most recent states to permit research and development efforts aimed at making industrial hemp a profitable alternative crop.

Nationally, at least 32 states, according to the National Hemp Association, have projects underway, studying best agronomic practices, potential uses and end-user marketing. NHA estimates that the U.S. imports nearly $700 million in hemp products annually — mostly from China and Canada.

This year, the ag departments in New York and Pennsylvania are monitoring and studying closely controlled field trials at 26 sites with widely differing goals — some agronomic; some testing end-market uses. New York Ag and Markets and Cornell University are overseeing 10 permits in the Empire State.

Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has 16 permitted pilot projects underway. Some are under the guidance of Penn State University and other universities; others are under private group guidance.

Some projects are exploring end-product food, feed and fiber uses for the plants, seeds and oils. Hemp seed yields of 1,000 to 1,500 pounds per acre are possible, says Penn State Agronomist Greg Roth. With good markets, seed prices of 50 to 90 cents a pound might be possible — even higher for organic hemp seed. 

Hemp isn’t marijuana
While the plants look similar, hemp and marijuana are largely defined by plant tissue levels of tetrahydrocannabinol — THC, the psychoactive ingredient that makes marijuana a valued drug. Industrial hemp is high in fiber, but low in THC.

Canada and the European Union strictly limit THC in industrial hemp to less than 0.3%. That’s also the U.S. standard for hemp research projects. Marijuana’s THC levels range from 3% to 30%.

Proponents of legalizing hemp nationwide argue that new technology to distinguish THC levels both in the field and from the air will allow for adequate production enforcement. Currently, all testing is done via laboratory.

With low THC levels, it’s impossible to experience euphoria from smoking hemp. And it contains a greater percentage of cannabidiol (CBD), which actually blocks the marijuana high.

“This is a plant that can create jobs. It’s a plant that can create health and something that can really benefit future generations,” insists Duffield.

Back at Rodale
Duffield drilled this year’s hemp plots. The tall, dense canopy left little room for weeds to catch sunlight. Despite a wet growing season, he sees deep-rooted hemp and high seeding rates as a potential cover crop that seems to perform well without a lot of nitrogen.

Ag Department inspectors pulling samples for THC testing reported that not all hemp plot stands were as well-established. One reason, theorizes Duffield, is hemp seed can be “hard” — slow to germinate.

Next year, he plans to plant some hemp in 30-inch rows. But as Roth points out, “One of our biggest concerns is controlling weeds. No herbicides are available for hemp production here.”

So there’s still much to be learned about growing hemp — if and when it becomes commercially legal. There’s even more to learn about markets and competing against Canada and especially China.

Hemp resources to explore
One potentially valuable new resource is Industrial hemp from seed to market, produced by Cornell Cooperative Extension. Its back page includes 21 web links to production and marketing documents.

Hemp as an agricultural commodity, a Congressional Research Service report, is another good backgrounder.

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