OSU hemp center

Jay Noller, left, director of the Global Hemp Innovation Center at Oregon State University, looks over a hemp plot at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center with Lloyd Nackley, an assistant professor of production horticulture.

CORVALLIS — Oregon State University’s Global Hemp Innovation Center has received a $10 million USDA grant to study how and where the versatile crop can support rural economies across four Western states.

The five-year project was one of 15 proposals to receive funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which awarded $146 million for sustainable agricultural research.

OSU established the Global Hemp Innovation Center in 2019 — one year after hemp was decriminalized in the 2018 Farm Bill — to provide scientific data necessary for spurring investment in the nascent industry.

The center combines more than 40 OSU faculty in 19 academic disciplines to research all aspects of hemp, from cultivation to end products.

Jeff Steiner, associate director of the center, described hemp as being locked away in a time capsule for more than 80 years after it was banned in the U.S. It is the center’s job to find out how hemp can be incorporated into modern agricultural practices and production systems.

That in turn helps to drive new markets for the crop, including essential oils, grain and fiber.

“While enthusiasm for hemp has grown, there is still a tremendous lack of knowledge about the crop,” Steiner said.

For this project, OSU is partnering with eight other institutions to match hemp genetics and best agricultural practices with growing areas east of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada in Oregon, Washington, California and Nevada.

It all starts with the plant, Steiner said. Hemp grown primarily for oil extraction is not genetically the same as hemp grown for grain or fiber. Optimum growing conditions for one type may not be suitable for another.

What’s more, Steiner said hemp must fit into local agricultural systems and crop rotations so it does not displace other commodities, such as hay and potatoes in the Klamath Basin.

“It’s not like we have to start from scratch, but we have to apply all this knowledge and make it work for hemp,” Steiner said.

Researchers are also looking at where to add processing capacity for hemp, and whether those facilities can be built in rural and tribal communities.

Tribal partners include the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Central Oregon, which has taken a keen interest in hemp to boost economic development.

“The Warm Springs Tribe has interest in exploring and expanding our agricultural opportunities in hemp production, and this is one avenue to achieve this,” said Laurie Danzuka, cannabis project coordinator for the tribe.

Danzuka said the collaboration will allow tribal farmers to identify potential suitable uses for hemp and utilize best farming practices for its production.

Steiner said the up-front participation of tribes and other rural communities in the project is critical to their success.

“The potential economic opportunities this new commodity may have presents tremendous potential for rural communities, and our project has set out to ensure those opportunities are equally available and relevant to all kinds of farmers,” Steiner said.

He pointed to studies indicating the global industrial hemp market could reach $36 billion by 2026. Part of that relies on hemp’s ability to tap into other markets, such as the nutraceutical industry and the textile business.

“It’s a matter of finding how hemp can be more economical than existing products in those sectors,” Steiner said. “There’s a huge potential for where this can be fit in.”

Other project partners include the University of California-Davis; Washington State University; University of Nevada-Reno; USDA Agricultural Research Service; USDA National Agricultural Library; USDA Western Rural Development Center; the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program; U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Research Center; and 7 Generations, a firm that specializes in Native American business development.

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