Industrial hemp

Hemp grows in an Oregon field.

HERMISTON, Ore. — For years, the Hermiston Farm Fair has been a destination for potato, grain and vegetable farmers in the Columbia Basin to learn about new research and technology.

Add industrial hemp to the list of crops featured at this year's 46th annual seminars and trade show.

As hemp continues to gain ground across Oregon, scientists and regulators presented their latest findings about the versatile plant during a half-day seminar Dec. 4, covering everything from federal regulations to managing pests and diseases.

Gary McAnich, program manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, discussed the state's role in overseeing hemp production and complying with interim rules recently issued by the USDA.

"We try to treat hemp just like any other crop," McAnich said, though he added there are caveats due to its close relationship to marijuana.

The 2018 Farm Bill officially classified hemp as an agricultural commodity, removing it from the list of Schedule I drugs. ODA has issued hemp grower licenses under a pilot program since 2015 under the previous Farm Bill.

Since then, the state has gone from 13 registered growers and 105 acres to 1,957 growers and 63,684 acres as of Nov. 7. That includes 112 registered growers in Eastern Oregon, including Umatilla, Morrow, Union, Wallowa, Grant, Baker, Malheur and Harney counties.

"We saw a big explosion in 2019 as a result of the 2018 Farm Bill being put into place, McAnich said.

ODA already complies with several major provisions of the interim USDA rules, McAnich said, such as tracking acreage and testing plants for levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. By definition, industrial hemp cannot exceed 0.3% THC.

However, the agency has only been testing for delta-9 THC — the main psychoactive component in cannabis that gets users high. Under the USDA proposal, it calls for testing "total THC," taking into account other compounds that can convert to delta-9 THC when heat is applied.

McAnich said the agency will switch to testing for total THC beginning in 2020. But hemp harvested in 2019 will not be re-tested under the more stringent standard, meaning growers will not have to worry about potentially losing some or all of this year's crop.

The USDA regulations also call for testing hemp within 15 days of harvest, as opposed to 28 days under the Oregon rules, compressing the timeline for growers.

McAnich said his phone has been ringing off the hook with concerns about differences between the state and federal plans.

"This is the time right now to provide comments (to the USDA)," he said.

Meanwhile, the 2019 growing season was the first opportunity for researchers at Oregon State University's Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center to take a closer look at studying the hemp growing around the region.

Ken Frost, a plant pathologist at the station, gave a presentation about diseases they observed in hemp based on samples brought into the plant clinic at HAREC.

"Early on, we had some cooler temperatures. Things were a little wet," Frost said. "We saw a whole lot of root rot, and things like that."

Frost said the region did see some gray mold later in the season — though not as bad as the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon, where rainy conditions threatened to ruin whole fields.

The clinic focused primarily on soil-borne fungal diseases like fusarium root and crown rot, which causes poor root development, stunting and wilting of hemp plants, as well as curly top virus, a disease carried by an insect known as the beet leafhopper.

Curly top virus can cause hemp leaves to become brittle and distorted, while reducing yield.

To manage the disease, Frost said growers should closely monitor insect and weed populations and remove affected plants if possible. They can also use rotation crops or adjust planting dates to improve soil health and avoid fungal infections.

"I think most people are still learning about this on the fly," Frost said. "We hope to accumulate more knowledge and provide that back to growers in the future."

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