Hemp Summit looks at New York's next big cash crop

Hemp panel
Jason Koski/University Photography
New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, second from right, speaks at the Industrial Hemp Summit on April 18 at Cornell. Others on the panel included, from left: Richard A. Ball, state agriculture commissioner; N.Y. State Sen. Tom O'Mara; and N.Y. State Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo.

State officials are embracing industrial hemp as a lucrative addition to New York agriculture as regulations are relaxed around a versatile plant with the potential to thrive in the state.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo convened the first-ever Industrial Hemp Summit on April 18 at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), and new plans were announced to foster growth for a crop that until two years ago had been banned across the U.S. for decades.

New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul led the morning session of the two-part summit, touted as an opportunity for researchers, farmers, manufacturers, government officials and economic development leaders to assess the benefits and address challenges hampering growth.

In 2015, New York became the 19th state to legalize industrial hemp trials for research. The initial pilot program restricted cultivation to New York farms partnered with university researchers.

Don Viands, professor of plant breeding and genetics, initiated a study into optimal planting protocols for hemp in the New York environment. His trials compared different seeding equipment to determine best practices for sowing hemp seeds in New York soils.

Hemp is the same genus and species as marijuana, but differs in several characteristics, most notably the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) present. Industrial hemp must contain less than 0.3 percent of the chemical, putting it far below levels that induce psychoactive effects.

Industrial hemp has many uses as a commodity crop. Food, paper products, clothing, consumer products such as soap, insulation and more can be made from the plant’s stalks and seeds. Hemp products generated nearly $600 million in U.S. sales in 2015.

Officials now want New York farmers to gain access to that growing market, and are looking to CALS for research and technical expertise.

“Introducing a new crop presents agricultural challenges that must be addressed in order for growers to make optimal decisions on the farm,” said Kathryn J. Boor ’80, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS. “Cornell researchers in the School of Integrative Plant Science are poised to develop solutions that New York farmers need to make industrial hemp a meaningful addition to our vibrant bioeconomy.”

As part of the summit, Cuomo announced $400,000 in funding for industrial hemp research and extension at Cornell. The funding will allow researchers to explore best practices for growing cultivars of hemp in different soil types and in various locations around New York. Researchers will also assess hemp susceptibility to disease and insect pests in fields across the state.

“New York state is poised to take on hemp in a big way, and CALS stands ready to partner with growers to help in this new endeavor,” said Christine Smart, interim director of the School of Integrative Plant Science and professor of plant pathology.

Beginning this summer, CALS researchers will hold field days at research farms for growers to look at hemp varieties for oil and fiber production. Smart said demonstration trials could be expanded in future years to grower farms to test how varieties do in other locations.

The state also announced that a Hemp Technical Team will be established to support optimal growing and processing of industrial hemp. The technical team will consist of three Cornell Cooperative Extension educators and a State Department of Agriculture and Markets liaison.

“If we are going to move forward with this, we are going to need to lead the way with cutting-edge research,” said State Agriculture Commissioner Richard A. Ball. He said New York is positioned to lead the way in the U.S. thanks to its land-grant system, abundant natural resources and proximity to the New York City marketplace.

The state also announced an expansion of its Industrial Hemp Agricultural Research Pilot Program to include private farms and businesses. Six new permits were issued, bringing to 10 the number of hemp research sites across the state.

Old Mud Creek Farm was one of the private farms that received a permit. Ben Dobson, manager at the 200-acre farm in the Hudson Valley, said growers will need technical assistance and research guidance on mechanical and ecological management if hemp is going to become a viable option for farmers.

Dobson said farmers do not yet know the fundamentals related to growing and harvesting hemp, such as nutrient requirements for the plant and how the seed will separate from the flower in a farm’s combine. He said those uncertainties will need to be addressed if hemp is to succeed in New York, and that he is looking to research institutions like Cornell as partners to find solutions.

Hochul expressed optimism for the crop, especially in New York’s Southern Tier. She said hemp has similar potential for expansive growth as the craft brewing industry.

“I just want everyone here to think big, to think about the great potential,” she said.

In addition to Hochul, Ball, Boor, Dobson and Smart, panelists in the morning session were: state Sen. Tom O’Mara; Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo; Assemblyman Bill Magee, chair of the New York State Agriculture Committee; David Rogers, president of Morrisville State College; Dan Dolgin, partner of JD Farms; Marc Privitera, CEO of Pre-Process; and Ira Fair of 21st Century Products.

Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media officer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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