Can Hemp Join Corn And Wheat As Everyday Crops? CSU Researchers Are On It

Sep 2, 2015

On a research farm north of Fort Collins, Colorado, in a secret location, buried in the middle of a corn field, grows Colorado’s newest and most buzzed about commodity crop -- industrial hemp.

It’s almost harvest time at the farm, and soon researchers at Colorado State University will be adding bushels of hemp next to the usual, familiar piles of corn, wheat and oats.

Hemp is a member of the cannabis family, but it’s lacking in psychoactive properties. Instead, it’s grown more for fiber and oil. But decades of prohibition have left academia lacking in published scientific research about the plant’s very basic properties.

John McKay, a plant geneticist at CSU, leads the team studying the 17 varieties of hemp on this test plot. The corn field border is meant to keep curious hemp enthusiasts from snooping around, and disrupting the experiments inside.

Brian Campbell, a graduate student at Colorado State University, shows off hemp stalks.
Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC, Harvest Public Media

“From the scientific side we’ve tried to keep people out of all of our experiments,” McKay says. “Because they’re going to knock seeds off of plants and interfere with the data. And this experiment, people are more interested than anything else I’ve done.”

McKay and his graduate student, Brian Campbell, weave through the corn stalks, eventually coming upon a half-acre of deep green hemp stalks.

Campbell has a huge smile on his face as he explains what’s happening inside this corn field.

“My background has been in alternative oilseeds so this is kind of like the king of alternative oilseed crops,” Campbell says. “So it’s been an exciting summer for me personally just to get to work with something that hasn’t been done to death, like corn.”

Hemp stalks rise above the corn field border it was planted within.
Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC, Harvest Public Media

The juxtaposed corn offers a glimpse into what hemp’s future could look like. The hemp field is a messy tangle of plants, ranging in height, stalk thickness and hardiness. The neighboring corn is uniform, sturdy, in neat and tidy rows thanks to centuries of breeding and research. The hemp’s varietal variability is what surprised John McKay.

“So if you look closely in each of the plots,” he says. “There’s quite a bit of variation from plant to plant and it looks like some of that is still genetic variation. If you look over there at the corn it’s extremely uniform.”

A more concerted breeding program could turn hemp from a much-hyped mystery into a full-blown commodity, McKay says. Imagine combines and tractors roaming over fields of hemp. But until then, variation among the crop will make it tough to monetize, and to pitch to pragmatic farmers.

Researchers are using overhead sprinkler irrigation to water the hemp. The system's tires dig deep trenches in the soil.
Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC, Harvest Public Media

One Chinese variety, grown for fiber production, towers overhead at 10 feet tall. Others, from Italy and Romania, are short and bushy, laden with seeds. The crop trial is designed to see which varieties grow best in Colorado. Another test plot in southwestern Colorado is part of the project.

“When you’re growing a fiber variety you want it to go as long as possible before flowering so you get all the stalk biomass,” Campbell says. “I mean down here you can see some of them are much thicker than a thumb.”

Hemp is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. The once-banned crop is popping up on small plots of land across the country. Laws have been loosened in the last year to allow experiments like this one. Even with the more lax regulations, it took months to get research projects off the ground due to funding problems and interference from federal drug enforcement officials.

John McKay, a plant geneticist at Colorado State University, says this research study focusing hemp has brought a lot of attention to the plant science department.
Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC, Harvest Public Media

Hemp-based foods have taken off, same with body care products that use the plant's oil. Some of its lesser known compounds could be used as medicine. But there’s little scientific research published about hemp because of decades of prohibition, which is why CSU got involved, McKay says.

“This has been, just in terms of how to plant it, what to expect and when, it’s been a fairly seat of the pants operation. As opposed to the other crops we’ve been doing for years,” McKay says.

This experiment, which began when a seed shipment from Europe to Fort Collins cleared customs, has brought a certain amount of chaos to the usually quiet plant science department at CSU. McKay has endured hours of meetings with university lawyers, a rarity for the research who usually focusing on benign crops like rice and camelina.

As experiments like this take off and mature, and the results are rolled out to farmers, the end result could be a different agricultural landscape in Colorado, with some of the state’s amber waves of grain turning emerald green.