Cornell researchers advance industrial hemp as New York agricultural crop

Christine Smart, professor of plant pathology and director of the Cornell University School of Integrative Plant Science, discusses Cornell hemp research at a field day event held at the Ithaca campus in August 2017. (Photo provided — Matt Hayes, CALS)

As farmers across the state get ready for the 2018 growing season, an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is preparing to oversee a second year of industrial hemp field trials across New York state.

Cornell has been funded to develop, support and advance the best management practices for optimal growing and processing of New York-grown industrial hemp. Cornell scientists and research technicians will continue to study and evaluate potential production barriers (e.g. disease and insect pests) and to identify and breed the best commercially available hemp cultivars for New York’s broad range of agricultural environments. The goals of the program include establishing certified seed production within the state and developing basic agronomic and production-cost information for growing industrial hemp in different New York state locations.

The 2014 U.S. Farm Bill legalized the growth of hemp for research by departments of agriculture or higher education institutions in states where it has been approved by law. And in 2015, New York became the 19th state to legalize hemp research trials. Last month, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced a plan to legalize hemp nationally as an agricultural commodity.

Initial Cornell studies focused on establishing comprehensive planting protocols, with researchers comparing different seeding equipment to determine the best practices for sowing hemp seeds in a variety of New York soils.

Last year, the state expanded the Industrial Hemp Agricultural Research Pilot Program, which is overseen by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, to include research trials at Cornell’s Ithaca campus, at the New York state Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva and on 1,700 acres of hemp planted in collaboration with SUNY Sullivan, Binghamton University and private farms across the state. CALS researchers organized field days at research farms, allowing potential growers to look at hemp varieties and their suitability for oil and fiber production. The effort established preliminary insights into the most promising cultivars and optimal growing conditions for New York.

Cornell Cooperative Extension Director Chris Watkins, Ph.D., right, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, discuss hemp research and farming opportunities in New York (Photo provided — Cornell Cooperative Extension)

This year, aided by $2 million in new state funding, Cornell announced that it would be initiating a long-term hemp breeding program and expanding cultivar trials into the North Country at the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy (Clinton County). The southernmost field trial location will be the Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Riverhead (Suffolk County). New York is well positioned to become a major producer of industrial hemp, and the industrial hemp research project, which ultimately focuses on developing and improving basic agronomic outcomes for current and future hemp farmers, will lead to the development of cultivars adapted to a diversity of New York state growing conditions.

The hemp grown in this project may also be sold for processing, which will develop price data from the open market. Compiled sets of agronomic, cost-of-production and trade data will provide useful and practical science-based knowledge and information, which will assist hemp farmers, potential growers, and the hemp industry with making informed production and business decisions.

Speaking at the state’s first industrial hemp research forum, held Feb. 28 in Cornell’s Stocking Hall, the home of CALS Lab Space as well as the Cornell Dairy, Kathryn J. Boor (’80), the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS, told an assembled group of farmers, processors, scientists and government officials, “Cornell and CALS are uniquely positioned, with our School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS) and Cornell Cooperative Extension, to provide research-based answers and outreach to support this initiative for New York.” NYSDAM Commissioner Richard Ball anticipates that Extension will provide support to New York hemp growers, who are expected to plant as many as 3,500 acres into hemp. The forum examined several of the literally tens of thousands of uses and the wide range of markets for industrial hemp fiber and oil.

The hemp plant, Cannabis sativa, has a history that can be traced back to ancient horticulture, like corn. Its present day uses include grain for food; oil for food, cosmetics, personal care products and industrial applications; oil and straw for sustainable, renewable fuel stocks; and straw for industrial fiber. Hemp also can be used for medical purposes.

There are genetically distinct biotypes of cannabis, and those which have low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels, the principal intoxicating agent in marijuana, are classified as industrial hemp. These low-THC hemp biotypes are the focus of the Cornell research.

Project leader Larry Smart, a professor in the SIPS Horticulture Section whose lab research is focused on breeding, genetics, genomics and physiology of shrub willow bioenergy crops, believes that hemp cultivars bred for New York growers could be developed and ready for distribution for the 2021 or 2022 growing season.

For more information or to learn about participating in the program, visit esd.ny.gov/industrial-hemp.

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