By Dave Ostdiek
The Panhandle Research and Extension Center has embarked on a partnership with a family farm corporation in Scotts Bluff County, Western Farms LLC, to conduct research on growing industrial hemp for seed production in the Panhandle.
The public-private joint venture, "Evaluation of Hemp Seed Production in Greenhouse Environment in Western Nebraska," will take place in Scottsbluff, Neb.
For the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the project leader is Dipak Santra, alternative crops breeding specialist at the Panhandle center. Other team members are Jeff Bradshaw, entomologist; Bob Harveson, plant pathologist; Nevin Lawrence, integrated weed management specialist; and Bijesh Maharjan, soil and nutrition management specialist. Jack Whittier, Panhandle center director, is project adviser.
Panhandle center faculty will conduct research at Western Farms' 22,000-square-foot greenhouse — both to help their industrial hemp venture and for other farmers interested in growing industrial hemp.
Western Farms LLC is providing $31,152 to fund the project, which began Oct. 1 and will extend until Dec. 31, 2020. The objectives are to research and answer several questions about hemp production for CBD under greenhouse conditions, including:
- The best variety for high seed production with high CBD and low THC. CBD stands for cannabidiol, a nonpsychoactive compound that is being used for its pharmaceutical qualities for a variety of conditions and illnesses. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the psychoactive chemical in the plant.
- Pest and disease issues. At this time, no pesticides or herbicides are labeled for use on hemp.
- Weed management options for hemp production in the field.
- Optimized nutrient management for hemp production under varying soil types.
According to Santra, the project started when the Hoehn family approached the Panhandle center about a collaboration. The Hoehns have relatives in Minnesota who operate Midwest Hemp Farms, which has been growing hemp for several years.
Their experience in Minnesota familiarized them with the economics and genetics of raising hemp for CBD oil. According to its website, Midwest Hemp Inc. grows industrial hemp for several products, including flower, CBD products and processing.
Nationwide, interest in industrial hemp as an agricultural crop has grown rapidly since the 2018 Farm Bill removed industrial hemp from the controlled substances list, opening the way for production, which is being regulated by the USDA and state departments of agriculture.
Nebraska legalized hemp production for fiber, grain or CBD in 2019, with the condition that plant parts of industrial hemp have a THC concentration of less than 0.3%. Read more at the Nebraska Department of Agriculture's Hemp Program webpage at nda.nebraska.gov/hemp/index.html.
The 2019 legislation authorized the NDA to regulate the growing, harvesting and processing of hemp for research in Nebraska under a licensing agreement until further action is taken by the USDA.
NDA has been operating a pilot program in 2019. The agency received 176 applications for the 2019 growing season and approved 10 applicants, according to a list on the NDA website. NDA is drafting regulations and a state hemp plan for the 2020 season.
As soon as NDA approved the pilot permit process for the state in June 2019, Western Farms LLC was ready to begin production in Nebraska. Santra and members of the Hoehn family met and discussed a potential project.
"We talked about production agronomic questions, what genetics would be appropriate here and so on," Santra said. He said Western Farms LLC hopes to develop a seed business, including some new varieties through plant breeding.
Western Farms will provide the research facility for hemp seed production. Santra said the Panhandle Research and Extension Center obtained a research permit from NDA, a blanket permit to conduct research on industrial hemp. Western Farms LLC is awaiting approval of a permit from the city of Scottsbluff before operations can begin at the greenhouse.
Santra said the entire permitting process is tightly controlled. Panhandle specialists submitted details of their proposed research component to Hector Santiago, assistant dean and assistant director of the UNL Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources Agricultural Research Division — who's also the university's liaison with NDA for hemp research.
Santiago submitted the information to NDA, and agency approval is required before the faculty can perform research as outlined in the package. Santra said he anticipates the agency will grant approval.
Santra explained the arrangement is similar in some ways to field trials with cooperators for other crops. In this arrangement, the cooperator brings to the table the research infrastructure; access to the crop for researchers; supplies such as seed, soil, fertilizer and so on; and funding to conduct the research. They will harvest the seed and other plant parts and use it in their business. UNL researchers will collect data and make it available to the public, so others who are interested in growing hemp will have the data available.
This research, related to production technology for hemp production under a controlled environment in a greenhouse, will be relevant to people who want to do hemp production in similar circumstances, Santra said. He added seed production must be under a controlled environment where there is no cross pollination.
Ostdiek is a communications/technology associate at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center.