Schoharie County

SUNY Cobleskill to begin industrial hemp research

Small crop will be ready for harvest in October, give insight to plant diseases

COBLESKILL — SUNY Cobleskill will plant a small batch of industrial hemp next month and harvest it in the fall for research purposes.

The college announced this week that the state Department of Agriculture and Markets granted a permit to grow the plants. On Wednesday, the college said it is working out the logistics of getting the first hemp planted. The 2018 growing season is well underway, but hemp grows quickly, so there should be enough time before the cold weather to glean some knowledge.

Fungal diseases that may affect the plant are a primary focus of the research, said Susan Zimmermann, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the college.

Cultivation will probably be done in the nursery, rather than in an open field. The seeds and harvested plant material will be stored in a secure, locked area on campus, and state Agriculture and Markets personnel will have free access to the premises for inspection.

The security measures are needed because industrial hemp plants resemble marijuana plants, which can be processed into legal and illegal medical and recreational drugs. The two plants are closely related members of the cannabis family. But a knowledgeable eye will recognize obvious differences, such as hemp’s skinnier leaves and often greater height.

The most important difference between the two is the relative content of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the intoxicating component in marijuana. Hemp’s THC content is legally defined as no more than 0.3 percent, while some marijuana strains have been cultivated to contain up to 100 times more. Conversely, industrial hemp contains more cannabidiol than marijuana, and cannabidiol limits the effect of THC.

There is no high to be gained from smoking industrial hemp.

Nonetheless, industrial hemp — usable for the manufacture of paper, clothing, textiles, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, animal feed and other products — was swept up in anti-marijuana fervor and banned by the federal government decades ago.

There has been recent movement toward loosening restrictions, however: The U.S. Senate version of the 2018 Farm Bill, approved by a bipartisan 86-11 vote in late June, contained a number of provisions to legalize cultivation, processing and sale of industrial hemp. The House and Senate versions of the bill are now in conference, and supporters are hopeful U.S. farmers soon will be able to grow hemp and compete for the multimillion-dollar market now served by imported material.

This is the regulatory landscape SUNY-Cobleskill enters as it begins hemp research.

Faculty and students will approach the project from different angles, looking at such topics as optimal spacing of plants, best soil and foliar nutrients, and vulnerability to diseases in a humid growing environment. Industrial hemp has not been grown legally in large-scale agriculture in New York for a century, and some of that knowledge has been lost, Zimmerman said.

With policy changes, there’s a chance it could become a commercially viable crop in New York.

“There’s a heightened awareness of the breadth of uses for hemp,” Zimmermann said.

SUNY-Cobleskill has undertaken other agricultural research projects, and has one underway now on hops — another commercial crop that disappeared from New York due to federal policy changes (Prohibition) but one that has enjoyed a resurgence due to the popularity of craft beer.

Zimmerman said a few other colleges in the state already are researching industrial hemp, including SUNY-Morrisville and Cornell University.

“We’re excited to participate,” she said.

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