New project helps fiber hemp growers, researchers share production data
By Phillip Alberti
The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 legalized hemp production (grain, fiber, and cannabinoids) in the United States. Despite the initial promise of sure-fire profitability, the hemp industry and its growers have had significant growing pains. Many growers learned tough lessons growing hemp, given the challenges associated with producing this crop. More akin to a vegetable crop, hemp often requires significant input costs to take the crop successfully to harvest, infrastructure to process it properly, and connections to turn it into a sellable product. Unfortunately, there wasn’t (and currently still isn’t) a definitive or reliable “how-to” guide for growing hemp in the Midwest. Principle among the many questions facing new hemp growers is the issue of what cultivars to grow based on environmental factors, regulations, production goals, and potential market outlets.
University-published resources for cultivar performance and best management practices for producers in the Midwest had not been developed due to prior federal regulation. Specifically, recommendations for planting methods, fertility requirements, rotational impacts, and cultivar selection, among others, were non-existent. Additionally, many of the resources developed for hemp production are coming from states with vastly different growing conditions than those in this part of the country. Cultivar recommendations and production strategies developed in more experienced hemp growing states (Colorado, Oregon, and California, for example) do not always perform well in the conditions experienced by Midwestern growers. However, a new project is beginning to fill some of those knowledge and production gaps across the region.
In 2020, a collaborative effort consisting of researchers, grower-cooperators, and private laboratories was formed to better understand production methods being used in addition to the relative performance of hemp cultivars. In short, participation in this program provided hemp growers an exciting opportunity to receive discounted cannabinoid analysis in exchange for data collection and data sharing. The data from these efforts was fed into an online website known as the Midwestern Hemp Database (MHD). Built with the intent to provide future growers and regulators a reliable resource when making production decisions, this information was deposited into a publicly available and interactive data visualization tool. Collaborators included university researchers (University of Illinois Extension, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michigan State University Extension, and Purdue University) and private laboratories (Rock River Laboratory, Pride Analytics on Consulting, and ACT Laboratories).
Despite having a year (in some cases, two) of production under their belt, growers and researchers simply did not have resources to determine what was or was not working in the region. In many cases, growers and researchers have foundational data to build off, but that was not available at the time. Knowing that so many growers were going to be doing this production regardless of what data they had in front of them, the MHD team wanted to use their expertise, their skill, and learn from them as well.
By combining university research protocols with crowdsourcing of grower-collected data, this project pulled in a large amount of information in a short period of time. The MHD reveals common agronomic practices throughout the region, as well as how different hemp cultivars performed in terms of flower development, cannabinoid content, and overall yields. In its first year of operation, 130 growers participated in the research effort, providing over 750 sample submissions; the data interface is updated weekly throughout critical sample submission and flowering periods. A report summarizing the 2020 growing season findings and associated project details are all available at the project website, go.illinois.edu/HempDatabase.
From the MHD, growers can find out, for example, if specific cultivars tested above the 0.3% THC regulatory limit or when common production practices (such as planting, testing, and harvesting) occurred. As needs change and more information is gathered, the project will evolve to best fit the needs of the stakeholders for which it is intended to serve.
During an unpredictable 2020, this ended up being a perfect project to take on, a truly unique effort that has allowed the universities to fast-track information collection with minimal physical contact in the midst of COVID-19. Taking advantage of public networks and generous partnerships with laboratories across the region was key in getting the project off the ground.
Expanding Research Efforts
The grower-submitted data is just one component of a larger effort. This year, in addition to continuing with the MHD project, the university extensions are partnering with 16 growers across the Midwest to facilitate regional field trials. This program utilizes a “Mother and Baby” approach to conducting on-farm participatory action research. Using this approach, university staff at research stations are conducting “Mother Trials,” which represent the usual replicated experimental design with high-level management and data collection. These trials will be supplemented by smaller, simplified “Baby Trials,” which are conducted by grower-cooperators across the Midwest; these on-farm trials take advantage of grower engagement and experience while instilling principles of scientific methodology for data collection.
These trials include a subset of cultivars that showed the most promise (compliant, high-performing) based on the data collected in 2020. Involvement in this project, known as the Cultivar Check Program, provides growers firsthand experience growing cultivars that have shown promise in the region. Funded via a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Partnership Grant, this project will continue its efforts through 2023. For these on-farm trials, growers were provided seed, shipping materials, and costs of cannabinoid testing for each cultivar at multiple time points.
Cultivars placed into the check program will be examined in greater detail with the intention of giving growers recommendations on cultivar selections soon. Given the amount of variation seen from year to year, and within seed lots from the same company, this project will help establish cultivars that produce consistently year after year.
Additional areas of focus include evaluating how fast cannabinoid content and concentrations develop over time, allowing for cultivators to determine more suitable testing and harvest windows. Data generated from public grower submissions, the Cultivar Check Program, and coordinated university research trials across the Midwest will all be integrated into the MHD to strengthen its decision-making power.
In addition, there is currently a great deal of variation regarding sample collection, preparation, and analysis across the United States, due to variable definitions across state, federal, and tribal hemp programs. This variation is leading to a great deal of disparity among laboratory results, which has problematic implications for growers wishing to use non-state-approved laboratories to track cannabinoids across the season. In response to these concerns, participating MHD laboratories also will contribute to a “proficiency program” designed to determine replicability and repeatability across analytical methods. The results of these proficiency tests will be used to compare across laboratories and shared via the MHD to help mitigate concerns over inter-laboratory variation within the program. As the project expands, more state-approved laboratories are to join the program to help evaluate and establish sample preparation and analytical methods across the region.
Science Informing Policy
In addition to allowing cultivators to make educated decisions on cultivar selection, the database is also useful for processors and regulators. In its final rule on hemp, the USDA cites data from the MHD in a few important areas including THC testing and negligence, laboratory Drug Enforcement Administration certification, and harvest windows. Specific references to the Midwestern Hemp Database being used to help inform policy change can be found throughout the final rule.
Given that it typically takes a few years to gather this much information, this new project has had a significant impact on the way in which data can be collected and shared. Refining and expanding this program will improve a greatly underdeveloped knowledge base for hemp in our region and continue to allow science to impact policy. The resources and partnerships developed will continue to enable informed decision-making by building on the combined experiences of researchers and other growers. Laying the groundwork for a successful future, this project will continue in 2021 and beyond.
Phillip Alberti is an educator with University of Illinois Extension based in Freeport. Contact him about the Midwestern Hemp Database or call 217-300-7392.
From the July | August 2021 Issue