At Colleges and Universities, Hemp Research is Booming

Colleges and universities in upstate New York are conducting wide-ranging research into hemp to support a promising industry. Scientists are seeking both new uses for hemp—from automobile parts and lithium-ion batteries to the medicinal benefits of hemp-based CBD—as well as the best methods for cultivating and growing the once-illegal plant. And although New York state is a leader in this surge of campus research, it is hardly alone.  

“It’s an exciting time for New York and for the country,” Jay Quaintance, the president of SUNY Sullivan, told Cannabis Wire as he discussed the flurry of activity after the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp (cannabis plants that contain less than .3% THC).  

In New York, seven colleges and universities—SUNY Morrisville, Cornell University, SUNY Sullivan, SUNY Cobleskill, Clarkson University, Binghamton University, and SUNY New Paltz—have been granted licenses by the state to study the industrial, medicinal, and agricultural properties of hemp—all since 2016. And some of the biggest cannabis companies in North America have joined in, including Canopy Growth and Charlotte’s Web.

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced $5 million dollars in hemp research grants for universities and farmers in 2017. Nationwide, while the 2014 Farm Bill authorized states to launch pilot research programs for industrial hemp, universities were cautious about jumping in until hemp was federally legalized, in 2018. “They were worried that if they fund hemp research, they might lose funding elsewhere,” Jonathan Miller, the chair of Hemp Roundtable told Cannabis Wire

But more and more universities—large and small—are coming on-board, and New York is one of many states, such as Kentucky and Colorado, where university hemp research is thriving. Oregon State University’s School of Agricultural Sciences, for example, recently announced the launch of its Global Hemp Innovation Center, which the school claims will be the largest hemp research center in the nation, with close to 50,000 acres for hemp cultivation. 

One factor pushing new research: Universities no longer need permits to import hemp seeds from the Drug Enforcement Agency. “I cannot stress enough how important that change is,” Jennifer Gilbert Jenkins, who leads the hemp research program at SUNY Morrisville in New York, told Cannabis Wire, “It’s so much easier to get seeds now.” 

SUNY Morrisville was the first university to be authorized under New York State’s industrial hemp research program in 2016, followed by Cornell University’s College of Agricultural Sciences in 2017. Both universities have been looking into best cultivation practices for hemp, while the latter is also trying to identify hemp varieties that are most suitable for New York’s climate.

One problem researchers are addressing is the lack of accumulated best-practices for farming hemp, since the practice was  illegal for so long. Hence, the speed with which farmers are experimenting and learning. “The processes that people are using are changing so rapidly,” said Jenkins. As a result, newcomers to hemp cultivation are at a disadvantage because they are likely to start with practices experienced growers have moved on from, Jenkins said. That  is why research and extension programs—like the ones at Morrisville and Cornell—are important to bring hemp back into mainstream cultivation, she added. 

“It is our mission to support farmers and provide a foundation of research,” said Larry Smart, a lead researcher with Cornell’s hemp program. “We’ve made tremendous progress.” He said that the program hopes to secure more funding to expand research into breeding, genomics, and pests and pathogens that could affect hemp plants, among other subjects. 

While SUNY Morrisville and Cornell received state funding for their research—with Cornell entering into a $1 million partnership with the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets and Empire State Development, New York’s economic development arm— the rest depend upon private, nonprofit or, federal agencies, to fund their programs. 

SUNY Sullivan, for example, has partnered with Charlotte’s Web, a CBD company, and the Center for Discovery, a non-profit research center, both of whom provide support in the form of genetic material and staff to study the medical uses of hemp and hemp-derived CBD. 

It’s an exciting time for New York and for the country.

Jay Quaintance, president of SUNY Sullivan

Research into the industrial uses of hemp is being led by SUNY New Paltz. Equipped with a $75,000 grant from FuzeHub, a nonprofit that supports technological innovation, New Paltz researchers have been trying since 2017 to determine which hemp fibers are suitable for different industrial applications, such as in automobiles, textiles, and construction. 

Clarkson University, based in Potsdam, New York, until recently housed the Mitlin Group, whose researchers claim to have developed “hemp-derived carbon nanosheets” that they hope to use as a substitute for graphite in lithium-ion batteries, with the help of a $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. These batteries would be cheaper and charge much faster, according to David Mitlin, the university’s former GE chair in Oil and Gas systems, who developed the nanosheets. He now works with the University of Texas, Austin, Cockrell School of Engineering. 

Jenkins, of SUNY Morrisville, and Smart, of Cornell, said that the farmers they work with for their research in upstate New York are eager to enter the hemp industry. Hemp—and cannabis in general—is being seen as a lucrative alternative to traditional crops by farmers, particularly dairy farmers in New York. The New York Farm Bureau recently issued a statement backing legislation to legalize adult-use cannabis in the state, because of its economic potential. 

“The majority of the growers are most interested in CBD hemp because that’s where they perceive the quick money to be,” Jenkins said. However, there’s growing interest in cultivating hemp for grain and fiber as well, she added. But what’s holding them back is a lack of processing infrastructure and a developed grain and fiber market, Smart said. 

Still, Canopy Growth’s entry into upstate New York with its hemp processing plant in Broome county could change that for New York. County officials hope that Canopy Growth’s proposed hemp industrial park—which began construction this summer — will bring businesses like automobiles and textiles into the effort to develop hemp-derived products, in turn spurring more university research in the industrial applications of hemp grain and fiber. 

While the CBD market is indeed the current driving force behind the rapid growth of hemp farming in the country, there is a sizeable market for hemp grain and seed as a nutritional food product, as well as a small market for hemp-based textiles, said Colleen Keahey Lanier, executive director with the Hemp Industries Association. 

“There are some very serious stakeholders focused on developing business pipelines and infrastructure for seed and fiber, but I expect their plans may not be ripe for several more years,” Lanier told Cannabis Wire. 

While research funding is a boost for agricultural schools, they are also capitalizing on the growing interest in hemp by offering new courses in cannabis. 

“Cannabis agronomy studies seem to be growing in popularity,” Lanier said, “and many of the early adopters among the academic community are already launching programs with specialized curriculum for hemp in higher education.” 

SUNY Morrisville, like many other colleges in the country, will offer a cannabis studies program starting fall 2019. There’s considerable demand from hemp companies for the cultivation skills that Morrisville’s students are able to learn as a result of the university’s hemp research, Jenkins said. Kelly Hennigan, who is developing the curriculum for the program, said there’s a lot of enthusiasm among students for studying cannabis. “We’re seeing the kind of excitement you don’t see for something like tomatoes,” Hennigan said

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