Jackson County’s biggest cash crop is getting a boost from science this year as part of an experimental project by Oregon State University to find the best strains of hemp and the most environmentally friendly methods of growing the plant.
“Can we understand how to grow in a way that does not create so much waste, specifically plastic waste?” asked Richard Roseberg, director of the 84-acre Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center facility on Hanley Road.
The research program is growing about 35,000 hemp plants on an acre and half to understand the best way to grow in our local climate, potentially to develop methods to save farmers money.
Last year, the facility grew a type of hemp used for fiber, but with the passage of the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, the extension center has switched to hemp grown for its content of CBD, or cannabidiol, widely touted for various health benefits.
Roseberg said hemp has similarities to flax, which has different varieties and can be grown for its oil or for its fiber.
The grow site along Hanley Road is different from other hemp farms in the valley. It relies on overhead sprinklers to irrigate rather than drip lines and it doesn’t use any plastic to retain soil moisture and prevent weeds from growing.
Instead of germinating seeds in a container and then transplanting them into the ground, Roseberg said he’s putting the seeds directly in the soil. So far, he thinks his method might produce better yields because the plants won’t be shocked by transplanting.
He’s heard anecdotal reports from growers that planting seeds directly in the ground has yielded better results than transplanting starts.
Another difference is that he’s planting closer together than many other hemp fields.
Because his crop is less than a foot tall, it’s still too early to tell whether his methods will pay off, though the extension center sits on some of the best farmland in the valley.
OSU has similar test grows at other facilities in the state as part of its Global Hemp Innovation Center and is part of a 17-state consortium to find the best varieties and methods of growing as well as development of new hemp strains.
Another grow site in Hermiston is using both drip lines and overhead sprinklers, a method favored by larger hemp grows in Eastern Oregon.
“Our goal as always is to share the information with growers,” Roseberg said.
The experimental plot has a $25,000 budget, and the seeds, which can cost up to $1 each retail, were donated by various companies interested in participating in the program.
While many growers prefer not to use overhead sprinklers because of fears of mold, Roseberg said he’s hoping that this region’s drier climate will allow this alternative method of watering, though he’ll be closely monitoring the results.
Part of his research will be to determine how much water the plants need to thrive and the impacts of watering during the critical flowering phase later this summer.
Six types of hemp are being tested at the grow site, with four seed types that will flower depending on how much sun they receive and two other types that will flower when a plant reaches a certain height.
Roseberg said many local growers have expertise in hemp, but he’s trying to use scientific principles to determine whether those practices could be improved.
He said many are growing hemp the same way they grow the recreational types of cannabis that get people high.
If OSU’s research pays off, it could save growers a lot of time and money. Many growers might be loathe to switch to directly placing seeds in the ground given the cost of seeds.
Roseberg said the Rogue Valley will never have the 1,000-acre hemp grows that could pop up in Eastern Oregon. Those fields would generally grow hemp to extract CBD.
In general, local growers are more interested in growing smokable flower, which they think will sustain the long-term market for this product.
To help fund this experimental program, the extension center hopes for some assistance from the Legislature to provide grants in the future.
OSU’s Global Hemp Innovation Center received a $1 million donation last year from Oregon CBD, a seed research company, to take a closer look at how hemp may be used in health products as well as for textiles and construction materials.
Jackson County growers planted more than 8,500 acres of hemp last year, but OSU and other local growers say the amount is far less this year. The Oregon Department of Agriculture has not yet released statistics on the number of acres of hemp that have been planted in Oregon this year.
Last year, many growers couldn’t sell their crops or had other problems, including mold, that devastated many grow sites. As a result, many fields were abandoned, leaving behind acres of unsightly plastic.
Hemp surpassed both vineyards and pear orchards combined last year in Jackson County, which had 2,850 acres of grapes and 3,800 acres of pears. Statewide, last year, 55,000 acres were planted in hemp.
Gordon Jones, assistant professor at the OSU Extension Center, said the center was unable to test CBD hemp in the past because it might have jeopardized federal funding. With the 2018 Farm Bill and some additional legal clarity, OSU is now able to experiment with CBD hemp, he said.
Last year, the extension center attempted a small plot to look more closely at growing hemp for fiber, though it wasn’t particularly helpful for CBD hemp growers.
“It was not a very useful toe in the water last year,” Jones said.
Now he meets with local hemp growers locally to see what direction the market is heading, including other varieties that express different types of cannabinoids.
Jones said he expects a dramatic reduction in hemp acreage in Jackson County compared to last year, when mold, barn fires and other calamities forced many growers out of the business.
Some grow hemp just to extract the CBD oil for edibles, while others grow to attain the best flowers for those who prefer to smoke.
“This area is perceived as a good place to grow smokable flower,” he said.
Because the crop is becoming more economically important in Jackson and Josephine counties as well as throughout the state, Jones said he hopes the Legislature will create a hemp commission that would be tasked with developing ways to develop this market.
The hemp landscape is already markedly different this year than last, Jones said.
“My sense from growers is that they over-planted last year,” he said.