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Jay Noller, Oregon State University crop and soil science professor, and OSU Extension nursery researcher Lloyd Nackley, inspect a field of hemp during the announcement of OSU's new center for hemp research.

Oregon State University opened its Global Hemp Innovation Center last week, at its North Willamette Research and Extension Center just north of Aurora. The timing for the center, which aims in part to help growers with the growing market for hemp and hemp products, couldn't be much better, considering the explosive growth in demand that experts expect to see for those products.

Truth be told, growers probably could have used the assistance a couple of years before, as Oregon farmers started experimenting with growing industrial hemp — which is similar to marijuana, but with much less THC, or tetrayhydrocannobinol, the principal psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. (Industrial hemp contains less than 0.3% THC under U.S. government standards; no one is getting high by smoking this stuff.)

But you can understand why OSU was reluctant to act before diving deep into hemp research: Until the most recent version of the farm bill passed last year, hemp was illegal under federal law. In theory, getting too involved with hemp could have put the university's substantial federal research grants at risk. (It's another example of the federal government's ludicrous record regarding marijuana; for another example, look at Congress' inability to pass any kind of law regarding banks and other financial institutions that want to work with legal pot businesses.)

You also can see why OSU experts and the state's farmers have been champing at the bit to start working with industrial hemp: Oregon has an ideal climate for growing the crop, and licensed hemp acreage in Oregon has increased sixfold since last year. Oregon is the No. 3 state for hemp cultivation after Montana and Colorado, according to Vote Hemp, a group that advocates for and tracks the industry in the United States. Across the nation, hemp cultivation is booming as well: Vote Hemp said the number of licensed acres of hemp jumped 204% from 2017 to 2018.

And the market for a hemp-derived extract called cannabidiol, or CBD, is expected to grow from $618 million in 2018 to $22 billion in 2022 as its popularity as a health aid skyrockets. 

But CBD just scratches the surface of the potential industrial hemp offers, said Jay Noller, a professor of crop and soil science at OSU, and the new center's director and lead researcher. “We want to understand how to efficiently and sustainably grow hemp for seeds, for hemp fiber materials that can be used in textiles and construction materials, including as an alternate to gravel in concrete, for hemp essential oils that have popular health and wellness uses, and for hemp grain for use in foods and feed," he said. No wonder, he noted, that the global demand for hemp is less than 10% of the supply. That sort of mismatch is a virtual guarantee that farmers are going to take notice.

But the crop faces growing pains, in no small part because of the just-ended federal prohibition. And that means there's a lot of work ahead for researchers at the OSU facility and at similar university-backed centers around the country.

For example, nascent hemp farmers will want to be sure that they're buying seeds that won't yield a crop with too-high levels of THC; such "hot" crops have to be destroyed, and farmers often can't tell for sure until months after they've planted the seeds. A program to certify seeds would be a big step forward. (On a similar note, we expect that a small fortune awaits the company that develops an effective portable system to test shipments of industrial hemp for THC levels; such a system would go a long ways toward easing some of the cross-state transportation headaches that have plagued the industry.)

These sorts of bumps in the road are to be expected, especially in this unique case in which a commodity's status switched from prohibited to legal overnight. We expect OSU's hemp facility will play a big role in smoothing out those bumps — and will give a boost to farmers who believe that hemp could bring them some big paydays. (mm)



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