A plant that has had prison time attached to its name for decades has the potential to treat cancer and Parkinson’s disease. It could be used to build and insulate houses. It could replace hops to flavor beer.
Many believe newly legalized hemp could be revolutionary, and Oregon scientists want to be at the forefront.
Advocates say Oregon has a uniquely suited climate, politically and agriculturally, to dominate the fast-growing industry. The state’s agriculture university announced in June the start of the largest research center in the country — and the third-largest in the world. Publicly funded researchers are excited about its ability to supplant fossil fuels. Private market leaders like the new economic opportunity.
The hemp boom has already started, evidenced in the popularity of the byproduct CBD added to trendy Blue Star Donuts and thousands of acres of seeds in the ground.
While many hemp’s uses are still unknown, researchers estimate what is grown now will only meet about 2% of potential global demand.
“It’s not a fad,” said Jay Noller, head of Oregon State University’s push to be the world’s hemp research leader.
A BOON FOR OREGON FARMERS
The university had a hemp research center in the 1880s, when hemp was still ubiquitous and turned into products such as the paper the Founding Fathers used to write the Declaration of Independence. When cannabis became illegal in 1970, nearly all of the institution’s work on hemp was destroyed, Noller said.
So, as the research center reopens, there is a lot of work to do.
Noller leads the new Global Hemp Innovation Center, which combines 40 scientists from 19 disciplines at 10 research centers statewide and in three other countries.
It follows years of advocacy.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, was jarred when he saw imported hemp products in his local Costco several years ago.
“Given Oregon farmers’ proven ability to grow world-renowned products, I thought they ought to be able to grow hemp right here in our state,” Wyden said.
Three Oregon Democrats teamed up with Kentucky Republicans to legalize the crop.
In 2018, President Donald Trump signed the farm bill that opened the doors.
But by then, oil and cotton had taken the place of hemp in modern textiles and plastics.
“This plant totally missed out on our most recent scientific movement,” Noller said.
Many farmers struggle with basic knowledge about hemp plants. They can’t identify on sight when to harvest or know how much daylight they need.
Seed scientist Sabry Elias wants to answer those questions in his research at Oregon State’s new center. In mid-July, he stared up at a cluster of plants that pressed against the glass greenhouse roof. They were likely useless, but next to them two-foot-tall plants flowered in a dark box that received less light. He was impressed with how much oil they produced — a boon for Oregon farmers.
The experiment looks like any other in the greenhouse, but because there are no federal rules yet around hemp, there is a legal gray area about what can be researched. University heads must sign off on what happens in the greenhouse and the doors are kept locked.
Still, Elias said that Oregon could be the best place for these trials.
The state is located on the 45th parallel, which farmers and researchers say is an ideal growing environment.
Oregon farmers planted about 7,000 acres of hemp last year. There are now about 50,000 planted acres, according to the state agriculture department, making the state first in U.S. production.
“The potential of hemp can have impact on Oregon growers, nationally and internationally,” Elias said.
OREGONIANS SEE OPPORTUNITIES
Researchers estimate that there are more than 25,000 uses for hemp. Most Oregon farmers are focused on one.
Hemp is prized for cannabidiol — CBD — unlike marijuana, which is cultivated for its high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly called THC.
CBD oil is now sold as a treatment for anxiety, pain, inflammation and restless sleep. It is in food, lotions, lip balms and dozens of other products.
One Oregon company is already benefitting.
In 2018, Oregon CBD sold about 30,000 acres worth of hemp seed.
Co-owner Seth Crawford hopes to sell 150,000 acres by next year. It’s one of the largest hemp seed companies in the world and an indicator of the future of the market.
They are shooting for 500,000 acres by 2021 — a $1 billion yield.
“No one can meet the demand,” Crawford said.
Crawford has worked since 2003 to isolate individual compounds found in hemp. One, cannabigerol, has been shown in limited research to potentially spark new neurons, which could be useful for Alzheimer’s disease treatments. Others could show up in over-the-counter painkillers like Tylenol or Advil.
He has bred seeds with only the terpenes that give hemp its floral aromas. The terpene plants take 18 months to develop from seed — a turnaround time that he wants to use to challenge the hops industry, which can take decades to cultivate new varieties to flavor beer.
Crawford knows there are still years of testing before those uses are ready for market, though.
“It’s just a matter of time and trials,” Crawford said.
— Alexzandria Passow, Springwater Trail High School
— Lena Tinker, Cleveland High School