Washington State University has joined the search for hemp varieties that can fulfill the hopes of growers and promises of advocates.

David Gang, professor at WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, will collect information this summer from seven test plots across the state. The university has not participated in hemp research at this scale before.

Gang said he expects researchers to learn a lot over the next five years about hemp’s chemistry and which varieties will thrive in different regions of Washington.

“I don’t think there’s going to be one hemp variety. The answer I think is that we’ll have a battery of hemp varieties,” he said.

WSU faculty members obtained hemp licenses from the Washington State Department of Agriculture after the 2014 Farm Bill allowed state-supervised hemp cultivation and research.

Hemp, however, remained a federally controlled substance. Hemp and marijuana are the same plant, cannabis, but distinguished by hemp’s low level of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

Hemp research projects bogged down, requiring the same federal scrutiny as research involving marijuana. “It was a nightmare. It just became too hard,” Gang said.

The 2018 Farm Bill legalized live plants and viable seeds. Farmers still need a state license and must have their plants tested for THC. If sample plants have too much TCH, the crop must be destroyed.

With hemp no longer a controlled substance, WSU has an opportunity, and perhaps an obligation, to help develop it as a profitable agricultural crop, Gang said.

Washington has 170 licensed hemp farmers, far fewer than leading hemp states such as Oregon, Colorado and Kentucky.

“We know we’re behind the curve compared to a number of states,” Gang said. “We’re trying to play catch-up right now.”

WSU has collaborated with the Industrial Hemp Association of Washington and farmers on field trials in Spokane, Kennewick, Chelan, Mabton, Mattawa, Prosser and La Center.

About 19 acres are involved, and 17 varieties are being gown, the hemp association’s director, Bonny Jo Peterson, said.

She estimated the trials will cost more than $300,000, with more than $200,000 coming from in-kind contributions of farmers. Peterson said she’s still raising the rest from the hemp industry.

Trials have a long list of goals, including finding a variety that can be planted in June and harvested in September, fitting into short growing seasons in Western Washington, Peterson said.

“We’re relying on the scientists and the farmers to figure this out rather than people who like hemp and think that it will save the world,” she said. “We’re still building an industry, and we have a long way to go.”

Lyn Larson-McCann planted a dozen varieties on a little less than 2 acres near La Center, the only field trial west of the Cascades. She’s growing the hemp organically, and pulling a lot of weeds by hand.

She said she started planting hemp last year, interested in it as a medicinal plant.

“We’re so new at being allowed to do this. Like any new business, it’s going to take years,” she said.

“But I know this isn’t going to go away, so now we’re down to the meat-and-potatoes to see how it grows and who it can benefit.”

Hemp advocates tout the plant’s versatility and its ability to yield seeds to eat and fiber to make clothing, building materials, biofuel and other products.

So far, however, the plant’s chemistry has attracted the most consumer interest. The most popular product is cannabidiol, or CBD.

CBD and THC are just two of more than 80 naturally occurring chemicals in hemp, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA has approved CBD in a drug to treat rare forms of epilepsy. CBD’s status as a prescription medication makes it illegal to put in food or beverages. The FDA sends letters warning companies not to do it.

CBD fueled a huge expansion in hemp production nationwide last year. Peterson said it was too much, too soon. She estimated 80% of Washington’s crop was unsold. “Most people are sitting on their stuff,” she said.

A Washington state hemp commission to support ongoing research is at least two years away, Peterson said. “Farms can’t fund anything with the state of the industry.”

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