AURORA — Oregon State University wants to be a major player in the hemp market.
It’s a fine ambition, although truth be told, the university already plays an oversized role with the agricultural commodity, which only became legal nationwide with the 2018 farm bill. More than 40 OSU faculty representing 19 academic disciplines are engaged in hemp research, teaching and extension services.
And the university plans to coordinate all of that expertise into the national’s largest research center devoted to the plant.
On a warm, sunny Thursday amid the rich farmland of southern Clackamas County Marion County, university officials introduced the Global Hemp Innovation Center. The announcement came at OSU’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center just north of Aurora and all but right on the 45th parallel, ground zero for hemp cultivation.
Hemp-based products were on display and those on hand got to see a small hemp field under cultivation, with a student intern planting hemp seedlings. About a dozen local hemp growers were there to lend support to OSU’s proposal.
“We believe that Oregon State University is uniquely positioned to serve the global need for research-based understanding of hemp as a crop and for its use in new products,” said Alan Sams, dean of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “Our faculty are already recognized internationally as the go-to experts for hemp research. The launch of this center signifies our commitment to continue to build upon that established expertise and grow our impact across the state, the nation and globally.
“Today we want to put a stake in the ground. We will be serving the public, Oregon farmers … and farmers globally.”
Jay Noller, professor of crop and soil science at OSU, is the director and lead researcher for the new center.
“We want to understand how to efficiently and sustainably grow hemp for seeds, for hemp fiber materials that can be used in textiles and construction materials, including as an alternate to gravel in concrete, for hemp essential oils that have popular health and wellness uses, and for hemp grain for use in foods and feed," he said.
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“It’s tempting to think of growing hemp to both build your house and treat disease. Hemp has the potential to become a major agricultural commodity in the U.S. It’s a rare commodity in which we use the entire plant.”
Growers such as Ken Iverson of nearby Woodburn already are creating, marketing and selling products based on hemp. Iverson is in his fourth year of hemp production, with 200 acres in hemp. The bulk of the family’s 1,500 acres are devoted to their well-known tulip bulbs. You can buy hemp products such as lotions and tinctures and dog treats at the farm’s Red Barn Hemp gift shop or order by mail.
He said OSU’s involvement will give the industry a big boost, noting that he likes the way OSU is focusing on the wide range of issues that go into the hemp business and not just the agronomy piece.
“It’s good to have that stamp of approval from OSU,” Iverson said. “They will help make it a complete industry.”
OSU hopes to get involved in licensing and commercial operations, but Steve Clark, vice president for university relations and marketing, noted that OSU currently does not yet have the OK to move forward. Clark said the industry still is waiting for the required federal regulations that the farm bill authorizes to be developed.
“We’re coming out of the dark ages,” said Lloyd Nackley, an OSU Extension nursery researcher at the Aurora facility. “We’re here to provide the expertise and information to the industry, and we’re so excited about the product possibilities. The market is already there. People are clamoring for it.”
Noller and his colleagues expect that there will be hiccups along the way.
“This isn’t like potatoes or wheat,” he said. “There are no fifth-generation hemp farmers. There will be a learning curve, and some of what we will be emphasizing are basic practices such as how to prepare the ground, put the seed in and get the plant up.
“It’s real new to be going from prohibited to non-prohibited. That’s fundamentally different. We want Oregon-grown hemp to be successful and sustainable and we want to work well with our neighbors.”