Lincoln University is putting down roots in work to develop industrial hemp as a cash crop for small farmers. The dean of LU's agriculture college said research will rival that of the top Ivy League institutions in the field.
LU's lab research is expected to transition to crop fields this spring; the projected benefit is a crop that could, on average, net $10,000-$15,000 an acre annually.
"It's a huge difference," Majed El-Dweik said of the income a small farmer could bring in from industrial hemp compared to horticulture crops of fruits and vegetables.
El-Dweik is the dean of LU's College of Agriculture, Environmental and Human Sciences.
"This is, I think, one of the driving forces of why we wanted to introduce this initiative and work on this initiative, to bring it to the small farmers. It's really more about what is best for our stakeholders," he said of the federally funded Industrial Hemp Initiative.
A net of $12,500 per acre of hemp for CBD oil is "a much better investment return than corn or soybeans," according to printed information from LU on the initiative.
The initiative involves LU's on-campus research and the Lincoln University Cooperative Extension.
El-Dweik said the research will provide data and information about growing, cultivating and caring for hemp that the extension offices will deliver to farmers.
"Our current agriculture programs serve 355 small, minority and disadvantaged farmers with an average farm size of 15 acres," according to LU's information.
Hemp and marijuana come from the same plant, Cannabis sativa. However, hemp plants have a concentration of THC — the psychoactive chemical compound that causes the high of medicinal or recreational-use marijuana — that is not more than 0.3 percent.
The federal government legalized the production and sale of hemp and extracts in the 2018 Farm Bill — but only if THC levels in the plants are no more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.
"In other words, the Lincoln University research will focus on plants that do not have a high concentration of THC," according to a brochure on LU's industrial hemp initiative.
What industrial hemp does offer is fiber, seeds and CBD oil — a different chemical compound in the plant that does not cause a high, but is marketed and sold as a dietary supplement and in personal care products.
"Compared to many other potential sources, hemp is rich in beneficial omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Hemp is also relatively high in oil content. Additionally, hemp can be used in building materials, papers, textiles and ropes," according to LU's information.
El-Dweik said the research on campus is focusing on a couple different aspects.
One focus is to test to find the right varieties of industrial hemp plants that maximize their potential — what will perform best in the varying range of climates among Missouri's regions, or what will be the best species for producing oil or seed.
The research is also studying the plants' genetics to improve yield and developing best practices on how to prevent and treat pests that may affect or infect a plant.
El-Dweik said researchers are experimenting with challenges farmers would be expected to face, and finding solutions that can be offered to farmers.
"If you are faced with such and such disease, then these are the remedies for the disease," he said.
Planning on the initiative began in February 2019, he said, and implementation started in November. Nine agriculture faculty are involved with the hemp research, plus 11 outreach educators, he added.
He expected field work — that's, for now, contained by winter to a lab — will begin next month.
Ivy League expectations
El-Dweik said LU's research is "in the forefront in the state of Missouri, but I can tell you that the level of research we will be doing is comparable to the level of research on industrial hemp at Cornell," which he said is "the leading institution when it comes to industrial hemp."
The state of New York's Cornell University is an Ivy League institution, but like LU, it's also a land grant university.
The website for Cornell's work with hemp outlines research that's similar to the investigations LU described doing — searching for the best commercially-available varieties of hemp that will grow and perform best in New York's environment, and "possible barriers to this industry's development, including seed issues, diseases, and insect pests."
LU is following another step in Cornell's playbook, according to El-Dweik — by establishing a hemp seed bank.
A seed bank "will enable researchers to identify pest-resistant and disease-resistant genes, giving them the tools to breed new varieties," according to a news release last August from Cornell that announced the receipt of federal funding for that school's hemp seed bank.
El-Dweik said LU will also have a testing facility, is in the process of establishing a certified laboratory and has already met with interested industries to work on establishing consulting and student intern-hiring relationships.
He said an asset that's special about LU is its certified organic research farm — the Alan T. Busby Farm, located east of U.S. 54 on Goller Road — which will allow for testing to look at "the differences between growing (industrial hemp) in an organic environment versus a conventional environment."
That study will also take place this year, El-Dweik said.
Other outreach, development efforts
El-Dweik said an industrial hemp plant that reaches a certain level of maturity does become unlawful to grow.
Given that, in addition to reaching out to farmers, he said LU is also using the 11 outreach educators involved with the hemp initiative to build partnerships with law enforcement and give them the same knowledge as farmers.
"We had our first workshop with law enforcement back in November" in southwest Missouri, he said, adding "we are taking it on the road throughout the entire state of Missouri."
El-Dweik said the second such workshop is being prepared for March, and a local one is being worked on with the Missouri Highway Patrol.
Within LU's agriculture college, he said curriculum is also being developed to offer a certificate program and a minor program through the Lincoln University Hemp Institute.
That institute has already been established, and last month took part in the Mid-America Organic Association Conference in Independence.
The conference's featured topics included hemp — "Is it for you? What are the barriers for entry? Can you be successful? How to get started!" according to the website.
LU researchers and extension staff — Babu Valliyodan, Clement Akotsen-Mensah and David Middleton — presented on the topics of hemp genetics and variety selection, hemp insects and diseases, and crop insurance for hemp.
They presented with LU's Hemp Institute alongside Joseph Najjar, Wade Hummer, Dennis Hill and Natalie Stewart, of Therapeutic Horticulture Consulting, and Erin Casey-Campbell, of the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
Casey-Campbell was listed to present on Missouri's hemp rules and regulations, while the consultants were to speak about the history of hemp and cannabinoids, hemp agronomics and growing, "processing and value added for CBD," and "contracts: how to secure payment."
El-Dweik said LU's work with industrial hemp puts the school "in great alignment with the state of Missouri's vision, the Missouri Department of Agriculture" in trying to look at what the next cash crop is that can be introduced to Missouri, besides corn and soy, and in workforce development.