The Cornell Fruit and Vegetable Research Farm at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva is growing a patch of industrial hemp the size of a football field. Larry Smart is a professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University.
“This season, the Governor instituted an initiative to expand hemp cultivation across New York State with a $900,000 grant through Empire State Development Corporation. So, I’m leading that initiative. We imported 51,000 pounds of hemp seed from Canada and have distributed it now to 14 licensed hemp growers who are planting it across 25 different farms around the state, to really kickstart the industry, to generate interest in hemp, to provide some material from the harvest that hemp processors can start to work with and look at and to increase our knowledge of hemp agronomy in New York State conditions.”
This was a major expansion of New York’s investment in exploring industrial hemp as a cash crop in the State. Even with robust support from the governor’s office, industrial hemp is still a highly regulated crop. Alan Taylor is a professor of Seed Science and Technology on the Cornell Hemp Team.
“There are the regulatory issues of the permits of getting the hemp into state, which requires a federal approval as well as a state approvals, so I think we’re working quite well on the regulatory aspects, but then there’s the research. How is this actually going to work in New York. How can we grow the crop and then where’s it going to be utilized, where’s it going to be utilized in a market for the hemp that’s being produced.”
The market for industrial hemp is substantial. Chris Smart is the Director of the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell. She says industrial hemp’s value comes from its wide variety of uses.
“It can be used as a fiber crop. In places like China and India it’s widely used as a fiber crop. And then it can also be used as an oil, producing seed to press for oil. In Canada, a lot of the production is for oils. And then you can use the grain itself. Dried, you can eat the grain or you can mill it into a flour and make things out of it. Finally, the industrial hemp will produce medicinal compounds, but not the THC, the hallucinogenic, but other compounds and so some of the growers in the state are actually growing industrial hemp for those medicinal compounds.”
Even though industrial hemp was once a substantial cash crop in the United States, it’s been a half century since hemp was grown in any quantity. While there’s an historical record, many of the varieties of industrial hemp that were once grown in the State no longer exist and so the teams have been starting virtually from scratch, working with 17 varieties of industrial hemp for the current trial.
“I’ve never done anything like this before. The thing that has been really, really fun is how the entire state of New York has become a team. The folks at the state Department of Agriculture and Markets know here’s their role on the team and Cornell has our role and all of the other SUNY schools have a role as well. Morrisville had a huge input into getting it going a year ago. So, there’s been such a camaraderie. And then the growers that are starting to produce it are so incredibly creative. Oh my gosh. They have uses or ways of growing it that may be better that I may never have thought of. So, just having this entire statewide team has been really, really fun.”
That collaboration extends beyond New York State. Larry Smart has been traveling abroad to learn from his colleagues who are working on industrial hemp research.
“I just came back from ten days in China where I visited their hemp breeding and research institute. They have five hundred exceptions of hemp and we’re hoping to form a collaboration with them that will help get our breeding program started here in New York State.”
Just as research industrial hemp extends beyond the borders of New York state, so do the regulatory issues. Legislation continues to be introduced in Washington D.C. to separate industrial hemp from being defined along with marijuana as a controlled substance, which would eliminate many of the regulatory hurdles to its widespread cultivation.