OSU leads research program on hemp
A crowd of local farmers attended a talk on growing hemp in Oregon, presented by Jay Noller, department head for Crop and Soil Sciences at Oregon State University, Feb. 6, at the Farm Fair in Madras.
Noller is leading a pilot research program on growing industrial hemp in Oregon, based on his studies done on hemp crops grown in Serbia and Northeastern China.
"Hemp does best growing at a 45-degree latitude," he noted. While hemp can be used for animal feed and fiber, the interest in the U.S. is in the cannabinoid and cannaturpene, or CBD properties, he said.
"This is a high-demand product, with a ridiculous market price, and we're behind the times in terms of supply. In 2018, it was estimated the global supply met 1 percent of the global demand," Noller said.
Hemp is of the genus cannabis, but contains far less of the euphoric chemical THC than marijuana — at 0.05 to 0.3 percent THC, compared to marijuana's 1 to 5 percent THC.
The plant is a great fiber and grain source, but it wasn't until the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill that the federal government gave an exemption for universities to grow the "Delta-9 THC" variety of hemp for pilot research projects.
At OSU, the research is trying to determine if growing it in open fields or greenhouses is better, what the planting dates, seeding depth and spacing should be, what organic and conventional sprays can be used, and what harvesting and processing methods to use.
"In 2018, the decriminalization of hemp allowed the expansion of OSU's research to multiple locations and multiple disciplines," Noller said, noting that OSU experiment stations around Oregon will be doing research, and more than 50 faculty members were involved just from the College of Agricultural Science. "We're making a full court press this year."
By 2021, he believes hemp growing will be a federally approved state program. "So, consult your lawyer about growing it earlier; (the fed) is not pursuing it now," he advised farmers.
The main product buyers are after is CBD and oil extracts. But if they concentrate the CBD, he said, "That telescopes what was a trace amount of THC in the field, and if it's hyperconcentrated you can't take it to an Oregon market. There are 63 different CBD compounds used now."
Some Oregon marijuana growers feel threatened by competition from hemp growers, and are worried about hemp cross-pollinating with their marijuana crops.
"So, some of the research will be to see what the pollen flow and gene flow is, so it doesn't affect marijuana crops," he said.
To start, other countries, such as Serbia and China, will provide OSU with hemp seed and breeders at OSU and other campuses will study the different varieties.
While Serbia grows 220-450 acre crops, and Oregon grows 2-10 acre hemp crops — all hand cut and dried — it would be different if big farms raised it, he said.
"Large scale operations are needed to meet the demand, so, I see farmers using hemp as part of their crop rotation," Noller said.
He said hemp grows quickly, outcompetes weeds, and doesn't have a high demand for water. It does have some beetle and mite pests, but grows robustly overall. As it grows, hemp draws up heavy metals and other compounds from the soil, so chemical pesticides can't be used on it. "All hemp now in Oregon is organic," Noller said.
He suggested growers could get three contracts from a hemp crop, going to different processors. A first cutting of the flowering top of the plant would go to make extracts, pellets for feed, and teas. A second crop would be ready before June; and the third crop would be harvested for CBD in late June. The bottom plant stems could be baled and sold for fiber to make strandboard and textiles.
"U.S. Highway 97, from Alturas, California, to Ellensburg, Washington, could be a place for hemp textiles, but that's two to three decades away. Hemp can sit in dry storage for decades, and is still OK," he noted, adding, "Hemp dust from the bales, called 'kenaf' is even being sold in capsules."
Noller said, "Oregon has the lowest legal threshold on earth for hemp. In early 2018, Oregon's hemp production was 11,000 acres; now it's 45,000 acres. Extractable hemp accounts for 80-85 percent, usable hemp, 10 percent, hemp seed, 5-10 percent, with the amount for grain and fiber unknown."
Noller said his hemp growing goal was, "Multi-use, not abuse."
Since Jefferson County is known for its specialty of growing seeds (for farmers to plant), Noller was asked for his thoughts on that.
"That is certainly an angle for this area, and particularly this county. You have a great reputation for seed production," he said.