Hemp study suggests plant may not yet be the right move for farmer

University of Maryland Extension educator Emily Zobel informs an audience of the kinds of insects she observed intruding on the Wye Research and Education Center’s hemp plants.

QUEENSTOWN – While mainstream production and research of the crop is still in its infancy, an intensive, multi-year study on the practicalities of farming industrial hemp suggests that the plant may yet not be an economically viable or worthwhile crop for local farmers, according to a research team from the University of Maryland College of Agriculture & Natural Resources.

“I would recommend farmers hold off and not grow just yet,” Dr. Andrew Ristvey, a commercial horticulture specialist with University of Maryland Extension, said in an interview. Ristvey, along with Dr. Nicole Fiorellino from the university’s Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, led the study.

“The concern with [hemp] grain and fiber is that it’s sort of a chicken and egg,” said Emily Zobel, an extension educator whose purpose on the study was to investigate the insects and invasive species present in the hemp fields. “You don’t know which one is going to come first.”

These observations arrived after two years of growing and studying hemp at the university’s Wye Research and Education Center in Queenstown. The research team’s public presentation on July 29 was their first presentment of data since they began in 2019. Their areas of inquiry included both economics and agronomics, as researchers looked to discover the most practical ways of maximizing production while adhering to the legal boundaries surrounding the plant.

Though research on hemp is bountiful around the globe, and especially in Europe, studies surrounding the crop – a variety of the cannabis sativa plant with significantly lower concentrations of THC – are lacking in the U.S.. The federal 2018 Farm Bill differentiated and removed hemp as a Schedule I drug and instated it as an agricultural commodity, opening the door for universities, farmers, and researchers to academically examine the crop on American soil.

Even though legislation has now passed, American researchers are experiencing an educational gap in their understanding of hemp compared to the rest of the world.

“Right now, we’re struggling because we really lost the knowledge of hemp production,” said Ristvey. “We really lost out on a valuable crop.”

The farm bill also paved the way for the mainstream production and commercialization of CBD. CBD products, including oils, lotions, capsules, and gummies are regularly available for public consumption. The over-saturation of the market is one of the primary red flags cited by the university’s team for potential growers. According to data from PanXchange, in 2019, the price of biomass peaked in July at $4.35, before crashing down to $0.95 by December.

The biggest legal boundary surrounding hemp farming concerns the presence of THC, the illegal, psychoactive component of marijuana. Because CBD and THC derive from the same parent chemical, cannabinol, the concentrations of both chemicals rise together with the hemp plant. And in order to meet the legal threshold of a hemp plant – with less than .3 percent THC potency — growers may have to compromise their biomass levels, hurting their profit.

Amidst complaints from farmers — with growers asking that the threshold be bumped to 1 percent — the United States Department of Agricultural added an interim rule in 2019 that allows growers who obtain a Certificate of Analysis proving their plants meet the legal requirements to delay harvesting up to 30 days later, increasing the CBD potency of the crop. This rule was explicitly explained by Ristvey and Fiorellino at the July presentation.

According to the University of Maryland research team, healthy hemp plants grown at the start of the season will cross that threshold and become illegal in early September.

With grant funding from Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station, the University of Maryland’s efforts are jointed with other higher education institutions across the country. According to Ristvey, the first year of study involved seven universities and 65 growers, 11 of which were partnered with the University of Maryland.

Hemp has had a complicated history in the United States. An original cash crop in America dating back to the early 17th century, hemp was produced from plantations as significant and historic as Mount Vernon and Monticello. Though it has a wide variety of industrial purposes, most significantly as a manufacturing component of rope and paper, questions of legality started hampering production in the 20th century, before nearly severing it with the establishment of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

It wouldn’t take long for the federal government to recognize the plant’s industrial significance, however, as the tax was soon lifted during World War II to provide the Navy with hemp-based supplies they’d previously received from the Philippines and Indonesia. A 1942 promotional film released by the United States Department of Agriculture, “Hemp for Victory,” encouraged farmers to start producing the crop again, calling it “indispensable.”

Since 1970, hemp has been classified as a Schedule I drug and made its production and distribution illegal. That being said, with the 2018 and 2019 farm bills, institutional support and interest is circulating once again around hemp, including that grown and studied by the University of Maryland.

“It’s very important what they’re doing,” said Jim Drews, project manager of the turf & seed section at Maryland Department of Agriculture. “And it’s great that they’re getting the support they need.”

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