MSU, Tribal Nations, others partnering on hemp variety trials

Seeking to identify genetics, management practices to support Michigan farmers

MSU Research Technician, Chris Robbins oversees an irrigation application to industrial hemp plots on the MSU South Campus Research Farm.
MSU Research Technician, Chris Robbins oversees an irrigation application to industrial hemp plots on the MSU South Campus Research Farm.

As consumer interest in hemp continues to grow, Michigan State University (MSU) is expanding its research and outreach efforts by partnering with several groups to assist farmers with production of this emerging crop in the Great Lakes region.

Variety trials are ongoing at various locations across the state, including the MSU Campus Farms and Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center (UPREC). They started more than a year ago with funding from Project GREEEN, a plant research grant-funding program based within MSU AgBioResearch.

“We had a research location in Chatham, one on campus at MSU, and a small demonstration plot at Waishkey Bay Farm in 2019,” said James DeDecker, director of UPREC. “Those plots were really our first look at hemp, and we got to learn quite a bit and can now ask some more informed questions.”

MSU staff member Hope Haumesser harvests grain hemp from a research plot at UPREC in 2019

The research focuses on two major uses of hemp -- CBD and grain/fiber. Current studies are testing yield and quality for both major uses of the crop Michigan farmers have shown sporadic interest in growing hemp as markets have fluctuated over the last year.

Kurt Thelen, professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, is working with DeDecker on the research. He said the team includes expertise in plant pathology, entomology and agronomy.

“We have a good balance of research between campus and UPREC with some overlap in genetics to evaluate latitudinal effects and some projects specific for each growing environment,” Thelen said.

Hemp plants provide a variety of benefits to consumers and growers. The fiber can be used in textiles, packaging or building materials. The seed and grain can be used for food and animal feed. New research has shown that hemp can also be used as feedstock for advanced biomaterials.

“Like any variety trial, the basic objective is to understand how genetic differences between cultivars affect performance and performance for us is yield and quality,” DeDecker said.  “Quality means different things depending on the product we're talking about, so it could be tensile strength in the fiber, it could be protein and oil content in the seed, or it could be the level of contaminants in the CBD flower.”

Currently, the majority of hemp grown in Michigan is for the CBD market, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid which has been purported to provide certain health benefits. However, the number of grain/fiber growers increased significantly from 2019 to 2020.

Research in East Lansing is part of a multi-state variety trial project that includes more than a dozen different land grant universities growing the same varieties at different locations to collect a robust dataset.

“The goal is to get a better idea how some of these varieties perform in different regions of the U.S. and different production systems (i.e. conventional vs. organic).  It’s a pretty broad scale approach to looking at how best to grow this crop, targeting specific genetics to different regions of the country,” Thelen said.

MSU has also partnered with Bay Mills Community College, Lake Superior State University (LSSU) and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. Together, they have received a $500,000 USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Tribal College Research Program grant to enhance hemp research capacity at Tribal Colleges in Michigan.Hemp Field

“We are trying to understand the potential impact hemp can have on economic development, as well as food and agriculture sovereignty for Tribal Nations,” DeDecker said. “Our team hopes to engage with as many of the tribes in Michigan as we can to address their questions and needs related to hemp as a potential tool for economic development.”

Tribal partners are conducting hemp research at Waishkey Bay Farm owned by Bay Mills Community College and Ziibimijwang Farm, an enterprise of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. Their grain and CBD hemp plots replicate research conducted at UPREC. Thelen's lab at MSU and the Cannabis Chemistry program at LSSU are analyzing plant samples from the different locations.

“We are using a discussion approach, trying to engage these communities to share their needs and experiences and ask questions. Our job is just to share information. When collaborating with Tribal Nations and Colleges, they take shared leadership and ownership over the project and make sure their priorities are driving our approach,” DeDecker said.

A series of virtual winter meetings to involve other Michigan tribes in the research is being planned and information will be shared widely with the public and regulatory agencies.

Eric Anderson, an MSU Extension Educator on the hemp team, said his goal is to stay up-to-date with the latest research results and relay that information to hemp growers.

The novelty of the crop presents challenges, but also opportunities as variety trials proceed. Regulation of the crop also comes into play, as researchers have to keep THC levels within government mandated guidelines.

“Last year we were generating grain and fiber data in a time where everyone was excited about CBD, and so we are some the few researchers with grain and fiber data in the Midwest from last year,” he said. “The novelty of this crop plays a big factor with the learning curve of experts. It just takes one or two little variety trials and suddenly you're the expert. That's the environment that we're working in, which is pretty unusual compared to most of the things that we do.”

So far, the potential for Michigan farmers looks promising.

“Hemp is a crop that does seem to be pretty well adapted to our climate,” Thelen said. “Our research is aimed at making sure Michigan farmers are positioned to take advantage of emerging markets and not put at a disadvantage relative to other states.

“We want to make sure that our growers have every opportunity to compete on a national scale when growing this crop. Hemp is not likely to be a large commodity crop like corn or soybean, but it’s going to have its own unique niches. It is a crop that is a jack-of-all-trades type, there's a lot of different potential end uses.”

As the market for hemp products continues to establish itself, DeDecker and Thelen plan to learn more about its ability to be grown in Michigan.

“In the immediate future, we hope to get some more years under our belt working with hemp,” Thelen said. “Whenever we make recommendations for growing crops, we want to have a number of different years of data, because every year is a different growing environment. We want to know what the best management practices are under a broad spectrum of growing conditions, including dry conditions like we're experiencing this year (summer 2020).

It takes a robust body of data before you can make conclusions that are going to be able to withstand the test of time.”

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