$10 million grant to study hemp market in western U.S.

PULLMAN, Wash. – Researchers from Washington State University will study different hemp varieties and do chemical analysis of them as part of a new $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to define economic opportunities for hemp in the western United States.

Green hemp plants in a field.
Hemp plants in a research plot at Oregon State University.
Photo courtesy Oregon State University

The grant, led by Oregon State University’s Global Hemp Innovation Center, is a five-year project funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems grant program. WSU scientists are partnering with eight institutions across the nation and many industry partners, including the Industrial Hemp Association of Washington, on this research, which addresses the needs of Native American and other rural community businesses and farmers in the four-state West Coast region.

“We’re interested in what hemp varieties are best for western growers. Many of them are interested in growing the crop for fiber and grain,” said David Gang, professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. “Hemp has a lot of amazing properties and potential, especially in producing building material and feedstock.”

The WSU portion of the grant is approximately $1.3 million. Beyond that, a significant fraction of the overall grant will go to native tribal partners around the west, including Washington tribes.

“We’re working with native Washington tribes on efforts to coordinate growth trials on reservation lands and to work on research related to industrial development,” Gang said.

“We established the Global Hemp Innovation Center in 2019 to bring together a wide variety of stakeholders to address big unanswered questions about the hemp industry,” said Jeffrey Steiner, associate director of the center. “While enthusiasm for hemp has grown, there is still a tremendous lack of knowledge about the crop.”

The recent decriminalization of hemp with the passage of the 2018 farm bill created a boom of interest in the potential of hemp. Establishing a successful hemp industry requires more research on where different hemp grain, fiber, and essential oil market classes should be optimally grown and the best genetics to use; how to incorporate hemp into existing production systems to complement rather than disrupt markets; where to process the grown materials that are used to manufacture hemp products; and what are the likely growth markets to support industry expansion.

The research team will address these questions by targeting the rural transportation corridor that traverses Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California east of the Cascade-Sierra Nevada Mountains from Canada to Mexico. The region represents diverse, generally arid environmental conditions and encompasses both large areas of irrigated and non-irrigated production.

Because Native American Tribes are significantly represented across the four-state region, the researchers are incorporating Native American farmers and other tribal leaders, including from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon, in the effort, with a goal to include their cultural and economic needs as part of business development efforts.

The engagement of tribal communities also aims to address historic inequities in agriculture and will engage Native American students in different aspects of the emerging hemp sector, Steiner said.

“The up-front involvement of tribal communities along with other rural communities in this work is critical to its success,” Steiner said. “The potential economic opportunities this new commodity may have presents tremendous potential for rural communities and our project has set out to ensure those opportunities are equally available and relevant to all kinds of farmers.”

Additional partners on the project include the University of California, Davis; University of Nevada, Reno Extension; USDA, Agricultural Research Service; United States Department of Transportation, Volpe National Transportation Systems Research Center, the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program; 7 Generations, a Native American-owned firm that specializes in Indian Country business development; USDA, National Agricultural Library; and the USDA, Western Rural Development Center.

Funding is from USDA-NIFA.