UNL Partners with Panhandle Farm to Research Hemp

UNL Partners with Panhandle Farm to Research Hemp

The Panhandle Research and Extension Center has embarked on a partnership with a family farm corporation in Scotts Bluff County, Western Farms LLC, to conduct scientific research on growing industrial hemp for seed production in the Panhandle.

The public-private joint venture will take place in Scottsbluff and is titled “Evaluation of Hemp Seed Production in a Greenhouse Environment in Western Nebraska.”

For UNL, the project leader is Dipak Santra, alternative crops breeding specialist at the Panhandle Center. Other team members are Jeff Bradshaw, entomologist; Bob Harveson, plant pathologist; Nevin Lawrence, integrated weed management specialist; and Bijesh Maharjan, soil and nutrition management specialist. Jack Whittier, Panhandle Center director, is project advisor.

Panhandle Center faculty will conduct research at Western Farms’ 22,000-square-foot greenhouse. Western Farms LLC is providing $31,152 to fund the project, which began Oct. 1 and will extend to Dec. 31, 2020. Results from the study will be made public to assist other growers considering this option.

The objectives are to research several aspects of hemp production for CBD under greenhouse conditions, including identifying:

  • The best varieties for high seed production with high CBD and low THC. CBD stands for cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound that is being used for its pharmaceutical qualities for a variety of conditions and illnesses. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the psychoactive chemical in the plant.
  • Pest and disease issues. At this time, no pesticides are labeled for use on hemp.
  • Weed management options for hemp fields.
  • Optimized nutrient management for hemp production under varying soil types.

Background

The project started when the Hoehn family approached the Panhandle Center about a possible collaboration, Santra said. The Hoehns have relatives in Minnesota who operate Midwest Hemp Farms, which has been growing hemp for several years. Their experience in Minnesota familiarized them with the economics and genetics of raising hemp for CBD oil. According to their website, Midwest Hemp Inc. focuses on growing industrial hemp for several products, such as flower, CBD products, and processing.

Nationwide, interest in industrial hemp as an agricultural crop has grown rapidly since the 2018 farm bill removed industrial hemp from the controlled substances list ― opening the way for production ― and required regulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and state departments of agriculture. Nebraska legalized hemp production for fiber, grain, or CBD in 2019, with the condition that plant parts of industrial hemp have a THC concentration of less than 0.3 percent. (See the Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s (NDA) Hemp Program webpage.) The 2019 legislation authorized NDA to regulate the growing, harvesting, and processing of hemp for research in Nebraska under a licensing agreement until further action is taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

NDA operated a pilot program in 2019. The agency received 176 applications for the 2019 growing season and approved 10 applicants, according to a list on the NDA website. They are in Scotts Bluff, Richardson, Buffalo, Dodge, Saunders, Otoe, Thurston, Platte, and Cass counties.

NDA is drafting regulations and a state plan for hemp production for the 2020 season. Production and use of marijuana and THC for medical and recreational purposes remain illegal in Nebraska.

As soon as NDA approved the pilot permit process in June 2019, Santra and members of the Hoehn family met to discuss a potential project where Western Farms would provide a research facility for hemp seed production. The Panhandle Research and Extension Center obtained a research permit from the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, a blanket permit to conduct research on industrial hemp, Santra said. Western Farms LLC is awaiting approval of a permit from the City of Scottsbluff before operations can begin at the greenhouse.

Santra said the entire permitting process is tightly controlled. The Panhandle specialists submitted details of their proposed research component to Hector Santiago, assistant dean and assistant director of UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources Agricultural Research Division. Santiago is the university’s liaison with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture for hemp research. Santiago submitted the information to NDA, and agency approval is required before faculty can perform research as outlined in the package. Santra said he anticipates NDA will grant approval.

Santra explained that the arrangement is similar in some ways to field trials with cooperators for other crops. In this arrangement the cooperator provides the research infrastructure, access to the crop for researchers, and supplies such as seed, soil, and fertilizer, and funding to conduct the research. They will harvest the seed and other plant parts and use them in their business. UNL researchers will collect data and make it available to the public, so others who are interested in growing hemp will have the data available.

This research, related to production technology for hemp production under a controlled greenhouse environment, will be relevant to people who want to do hemp production in similar circumstances, Santra said. Hemp seed production must be under a controlled environment to avoid cross-pollination.

Industrial hemp is grown for either CBD or fiber. Fiber hemp is grown outside, and CBD hemp could be grown outside or inside, Santra said.

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