In its second year of industrial hemp trials, the Southwestern Colorado Research Center in Yellow Jacket reports a stronger crop.
During a public tour of the Colorado State University station in August, manager Abdel Berrada said the trial was done in response to public interest in the crop. The project is part of a five-year research provision in the U.S. Farm Bill.
“We’ve had a lot of calls about it, but we didn’t have the information, so we decided to see what we could learn,” he said. “We’re getting a much better stand this year.”
Testing hemp strainsHemp is a non-psychoactive variant of the cannabis plant used to make a wide variety of products including textiles, paper, rope, fuel, soaps, medicine, food and even industrial plastics.
Colorado is one of 24 states that has legalized growing hemp, though it’s illegal at the federal level because it’s genetically related to the high-inducing marijuana.
The difference, Berrada said, is that hemp is regulated to 0.3 percent THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, which typically contains 5 to 25 percent THC.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture regularly tests hemp crops across the state to ensure strains do not exceed the 0.3 percent standard.
But CSU researchers at Yellow Jacket wondered whether hemp’s THC levels could change because of environmental stress.
“In one test plot, we are using deficit irrigation to see if the stress will affect THC levels and cause them to go over the standard,” Berrada said. “That’s important, because if a farmer’s hemp crop is over the standard, it could be destroyed.”
Thirteen strains are being grown in another test plot to study vegetative yield, seed yield, plant health, irrigation and fertilizer needs, and whether pests or diseases are an issue. All the strains are from Europe and were chosen based on similar climate conditions.
CSU entomologist Bob Hammon has been studying the impact of insects on hemp, and said the news is good for now.
“We have not found any pest species for hemp,” he said. “But with any new crop, you have a honeymoon period of a few years, then the bugs catch on.”
Honeybees are attracted to hemp but don’t seem to cause any harm. Hammon said beneficial bugs that prey on other insects, such as banded thrips and lady beetles, have been found in hemp fields in Fruita.
How trials turned outBerrada went over the specifics of the hemp trials.
The crop was planted June 7 at a rate of 900,000 seeds per acre. About one-third took root.
Hemp grows well in marginal land but needs a lot of nitrogen, which was applied at 180 pounds per acre. If grown for fiber, hemp requires good amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium to encourage vigorous stalk growth. Last year’s crop yielded 2 tons of fiber per acre.
The hemp seed, processed for high-protein foods, oils and fuel, is considered a better market than fiber for textiles because of heavy competition from other products like cotton.
Last year, the research center harvested 500 pounds of seeds per acre. This year, they expect 1,000 pounds of seeds per acre.
Seeds are selling for between $20 and $30 per pound. But obtaining hemp seeds has been a challenge for hemp growers because of legal issues related to federal laws. To solve the problem, the Colorado Department of Agriculture is developing a certified seed bank program for distribution to farmers.
“We learned this year to plant earlier, with seeds a half-inch in the ground,” Berrada said. “Keep the ground wet until germination.”
For harvesting, a sickle bar mower to lay the crop in windrows is effective. After drying, it can be thrashed with a combine.
“We’re narrowing it down to determine which species will do best here,” Berrada said.
A hot new market for hemp is extracting cannabidiol (CBD) for medical purposes from flowers and leaves. CBD oil is showing promise for treating a variety of diseases, including multiple sclerosis. It does not have the side effects of traditional pharmaceuticals, and because of its low THC content, CBD oil does not have a psychoactive effect.
“The CBD market is very profitable right now,” Berrada said. “We will be testing for it as well.”
One aspect researchers did not expect was the hemp’s impact on nearby marijuana plants allowed for personal use under Colorado law. In July, a neighbor complained that the research center’s hemp could cross-pollinate his outdoor marijuana plants reducing their THC level.