Penn State pilot program for hemp research is yielding production insights

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Hemp is hip again in Pennsylvania, and researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences are among a select group tasked with exploring the potential economic benefits to the Commonwealth of this important — yet maligned — crop.

"To be on the forefront of industrial hemp research in Pennsylvania is incredibly exciting," said Greg Roth, professor of agronomy and associate head of the Department of Plant Science. "Hemp is an interesting crop that provides opportunities for product development and economic benefit. After a decades-long ban on its cultivation, we're eager to see it make a comeback."

Penn State was one of 16 sites approved by the state Department of Agriculture as a pilot program for industrial hemp growth and cultivation research following Gov. Tom Wolf's signing of the Industrial Hemp Research Act last year.

In late July, a group of crop scientists, extension educators, industry professionals and state officials met at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center at Rock Springs to see firsthand the progress Roth and colleagues have made since embarking on their project this spring. The hemp research plots were also a must-see during Ag Progress Days in August, with visits from dignitaries such as Gov. Tom Wolf, Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding and Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences Rick Roush.

As Roth explained, industrial hemp — a variety of the cannabis plant — is a renewable resource grown for raw materials that can be used to make thousands of goods; its fiber and stalks are used in clothing, carpeting, paper, biofuel and construction products, and its seeds and flowers can be found in vegetable oils, organic body products and health foods.

"Hemp seeds are high in protein and are noted for their Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids," Roth said. "People are starting to add hemp seeds to their yogurts and salads and drinking hemp-enhanced health beverages. Some food companies are adding hemp to products to add value. I've even had hemp hot dogs: mostly beef and pork but with hemp added to enhance value. Others are considering the development of hemp as a basic food ingredient."

The one thing hemp can't do — despite public perception — is get a person "high." As Roth explained, while hemp comes from the same cannabis species as marijuana, the two are different in genetic and chemical makeup. The most important difference is that marijuana is grown because of its production of the psychoactive plant chemical delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly referred to by the acronym THC.

Industrial hemp must have a concentration of THC that is less than 0.3 percent — a miniscule amount, according to Roth — so the industry has screened varieties that routinely produce the accepted THC level. Under Pennsylvania regulations, hemp varieties are tested prior to harvest, and if they are above 0.3 percent, the hemp products cannot be moved off site and may need to be destroyed.

Despite its inability to cause a "high," hemp's connection to the cannabis family caused its production to be banned in the U.S. in accordance with the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. But, thanks to years of advocacy, education and a change in social norms, attitudes are changing, and Roth believes research will continue to turn the tide in hemp's favor, ending doubt — and snickers — once and for all.

To capitalize on hemp's many uses, one first has to know how to grow it, so Roth and Mark Antle, research support technologist, connected with Jeff Kostuik, director of operations at Hemp Genetics International in Saskatchewan, Canada, who provided guidance on varieties, planting and harvesting dates, and weed and insect control tactics. The company also provided seeds for the initial growing year.

"We liked the immediate buy-in from Penn State and the enthusiasm," Kostuik said. "We're very pleased to be able to partner with such a prestigious university with the personnel, expertise, support and resources to fully execute a complete agronomic evaluation of this crop. These trials will help guide local Pennsylvania producers on growing hemp for the first time."

The researchers are evaluating six varieties from Canada that are suited mainly for the grain industry in industrial hemp: taller varieties such as CFX-1, CFX-2 and CRS-1, and newer, shorter lines such as Picolo, Katani and Grandi. These varieties tend to have large seeds and are somewhat short in stature, unlike tall varieties grown for fiber. Despite a late-start planting in June, the crops have been growing well, especially the taller varieties.

"What's interesting is that hemp is a crop that is fairly easy and quick to grow," Roth said. "Our plants germinated rapidly and by mid-August were full of seeds. We're learning as we go. For example, it looks like a late May planting with a drill would be ideal. We've also seen a big response to nitrogen fertilizer. One of our biggest concerns is controlling weeds, since there are no herbicides available for hemp production in the U.S. Using taller varieties and a slightly heavier seeding rate are keys to suppressing weeds."

With good management, hemp-seed yields of between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds per acre are possible. With good markets, seed prices of 50 to 90 cents per pound might be possible, resulting in some reasonable returns. Organic hempseed is priced even higher. For now, markets are limited, but more could develop in the future, Roth noted.

He anticipates an early fall harvest in September, with plans to press some of the seeds into meal and oil. Developing a market for the hempseed meal is critical, so the researchers plan to evaluate the nutritional content from each variety. 

"This first year will provide us with valuable insight into the best varieties and management practices for Pennsylvania, and we anticipate that information will advance the growth and use of industrial hemp," Roth said. "We look forward to comparing notes with the other researchers to help move the industry forward in our state."

Funding for the research has been provided by Penn State.

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Last Updated August 25, 2017