AURORA, Ore. — As hemp continues to gain ground among U.S. farmers, Oregon State University will lead the nation’s largest research program dedicated to studying the versatile crop.

Alan Sams, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at OSU, announced the launch of the Global Hemp Innovation Center on June 13 during an event at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center south of Portland.

“Today, we’re putting a stake in the ground to affirm Oregon State University’s commitment to serving the public, Oregon farmers and farmers globally with the best scientific understanding of the true opportunities that hemp has to offer,” Sams said.

OSU will also become the first university to begin certifying hemp seed for registered Oregon growers, ensuring the crop meets guidelines and specifications.

Congress removed hemp from the list of federally controlled substances as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. The bill requires the USDA to come up with a framework for fully legalized hemp, opening interstate commerce and allowing growers access to resources like crop insurance.

Hemp acreage increased across the country by more than 200% between 2017 and 2018 — up to 78,176 total acres, according Vote Hemp, a nonprofit organization that tracks the industry. Nearly 8,000 acres were planted in Oregon, which ranked third overall behind Montana and Colorado.

So far in 2019, the amount of hemp in Oregon has skyrocketed, with the state Department of Agriculture issuing 1,550 grower licenses and nearly 50,000 planted acres.

Jay Noller, director of the Global Hemp Innovation Center, said Oregon’s position along the 45th parallel makes for ideal growing conditions. He said hemp has the potential to become a major agricultural commodity, but with that potential comes “a lot of promises, a lot of speculation and a lot of uncertainty.”

The Global Hemp Innovation Center aims to provide clarity for growers and processors. It combines more than 40 OSU faculty across 19 academic disciplines researching all aspects of hemp, from cultivation to food and product testing.

OSU is experimenting with hemp at 10 extension centers across the state, from the rainy Willamette Valley to the high desert of Eastern Oregon, incorporating different climates and soils. Noller, a professor of crop and soil science, said the university is “on the front lines of helping to answer the most important questions about hemp, and ultimately achieve its maximum potential.”

“The discoveries we will make in hemp and its derivative products have the potential to change how we eat, where we live and what we wear,” Noller said.

Though they are both cannabis plants, hemp differs from marijuana due to its low content of tetrahydracannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive compound that gets users high.

Hemp can be used to make things such as clothing, textiles and even building materials, though the dominant market now is extracting cannabidiol oil — commonly known as CBD — from the plant’s flowers, which claims a multitude of therapeutic benefits.

At least one analytic firm projects the value of hemp-derived CBD will grow from $618 million in 2018 to $22 billion by 2022.

Ken Iverson, who farms near Woodburn, Ore., is in his fourth season growing hemp, increasing from 18 acres the first year to 200 acres this year. He dries the plants and extracts CBD oil on site, producing about 1,000 kilograms a month.

Even after expansion, Iverson said the farm needs to triple production to keep up with demand. He said the Global Hemp Innovation Center will help to bring legitimacy to the business in Oregon.

“We have some real advantages in this crop and this market,” Iverson said.

Noller, who stepped down as the head of OSU’s Crop and Soil Science Department in January to focus on hemp, said growers in the future will ideally have three contracts for their hemp crop. First, the seeds and flowers can be used for CBD or food ingredients; the exterior fibers of the plant can then be used to make rope and clothing; and the shorter interior fibers can make paper and packaging.

Noller compared hemp legalization in the U.S. to the arrival of sugarcane in Europe in the mid-1400s, in terms of impact on Western agriculture.

“This is unusual, and hence we are bringing as many of our faculty and disciplines to focus on this, to ensure that Oregonians who are growing and working with hemp are going to be successful, profitable, efficient, sustainable and, above all, contributing to the well-being of themselves and their neighbors,” Noller said.

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