A New Leaf

CALS leads New York State’s efforts to reintroduce industrial hemp, marijuana’s long-suffering sister plant

For Cornell agriculture scientists, introducing a new research crop often has challenges. But those don’t usually include giving federal agents a tour of your seed cache—unless that crop is industrial hemp.

Industrial hemp

GO GREEN: A hemp plant from Cornell’s research project.

Photo: Patrick Shanahan/Cornell Marketing Group

Two years ago, New York relaxed regulations that outlawed planting hemp, joining a nationwide movement to promote a cash crop long banned for its family resemblance to marijuana. Last spring, CALS was home to the first New York State Industrial Hemp Summit, where officials extolled the plant’s virtues and announced $400,000 in research and Extension funding for Cornell. Scientists will study how the plant performs in various soil types, assess resistance to disease, and identify insect pests. CALS has planted two trial plots in Ithaca and plans to plant another at the Geneva Ag Station.

But before research could begin, Cornell needed to lay in a store of imported hemp seed—requiring state and federal clearances. Legally, hemp is a controlled substance, and possession is a felony. Securing seeds means plowing through red tape and working with federal agencies. Don Viands, the professor of plant breeding and genetics who’s co-leading the effort, was ready to sow in spring 2016, but approval stalled. It was late summer when the DEA sent two agents to ensure the seeds were stored in a secure location. “We had to have three locks to get to the seed,” Viands says, “and only two people are allowed to have the keys to the container.”

The irony is that hemp won’t get anyone high. The varieties in Cornell’s plots are bred to contain less than 0.3 percent THC, the mood-altering compound in marijuana. And hemp has a storied history as a versatile crop for making food, soap, clothing, cosmetics, and more. It was cultivated in New York into the twentieth century, but banned under the U.S. Marijuana Tax Law of 1937—largely a case of guilt by association. Vindication came from an unlikely corner: Senator Mitch McConnell, who sponsored the 2014 Farm Bill easing research restrictions on hemp, with the ultimate aim of helping American farmers cash in on the popularity of products—currently made from raw materials legally imported from other countries—such as hemp “milk,” a nutrient-rich alternative to dairy.

While hemp is a tough plant, it’s sensitive to pesticides, has a short growing season, and needs a lot of water. Dry weather is a concern: drought-stressed plants can produce THC above the 0.3 percent limit and must be destroyed. Some of the Cornell varieties will be six to nine feet tall by harvest—and with their dense shocks of iconic serrated leaves, they’ll no doubt attract attention. The plots sport large “No Trespassing” signs and will be monitored by police, but organizers note that to ensure that hemp plants aren’t mistaken for their illegal relatives as the crop is reintroduced across the state, education and outreach will be essential. “There’s an inherent public interest in it,” says Christine Smart, professor of plant pathology and the project’s co-leader. “We want the public and local law enforcement to understand the difference between hemp and medicinal marijuana. There’s a fear we could lose our research plots if they’re vandalized. So we want to be as transparent as possible.”

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