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Farmers closer to growing industrial hemp in Md.

Scientist checking hemp flowers (Thinkstock)

Scientist checking hemp flowers (Thinkstock)

Salisbury University has signed research agreements with Maryland farmers to participate in an industrial hemp pilot program under the state Department of Agriculture, the university announced Tuesday.

The university believes that it is the first in Maryland to sign agreements with farmers under a state program that allows farmers to grow industrial hemp if they partner with institutes of higher education for research purposes. Other universities have had their own pilot programs approved through the Department of Agriculture.

“Potential growers have been scrambling to find someone to team up with that could sponsor their project, enable their project really,” said Mark Holland, a professor of biological sciences at Salisbury. “We’ve been agreeing with growers to provide that research component to their project.”

He anticipates working with between six and 12 farmers as part of the research product.

On its end, Salisbury will test an agricultural probiotic developed at the university that is already used to enhance the growth of soybeans, peanuts, corn and other crops.

Student interns from Salisbury will test the probiotic’s effect on germination and crop yield as well as how it affects hemp’s production of cannabidiol, also known as CBD oil.

“We know that they are effective on other crop plants,” Holland said. “We’d like to see if we can use them to the benefit of industrial hemp.”

The university hopes to work mostly with farmers on the Eastern Shore, but it also plans to work in other areas of the state. They will test growing hemp under different conditions, including different soil types and in greenhouses.

Industrial hemp has not been farmed in Maryland since the 1940s. Until recently, it has been prohibited under federal law.

The federal government still classifies industrial hemp as a Schedule I drug.

The 2014 federal farm bill began to allow some farmers to grow the crop for research purposes. The most recent farm legislation, passed late last year, greatly expanded access to hemp for growers and researchers.

The Maryland legislature created the hemp pilot program through legislation signed by Gov. Larry Hogan last year. The state Department of Agriculture launched the industrial hemp program last month.

Hemp is a different variety of the same species of plant as marijuana, but hemp comes with significantly smaller amounts of THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive component. To be considered hemp, the crop must have 0.3 percent  or less THC. Medical marijuana grown in Maryland typically has between 10 and 15 percent THC.

Hemp has proven to be a useful material in several areas. It can be used as a grain or a fiber, its flowers can be used for CBD oil extraction, or it can be sold as seed to other farmers.

But because of its classification with marijuana as a Schedule I drug, it has been difficult for universities to conduct research into both industrial hemp and the effects of marijuana. The 2018 farm bill greatly expands what research can be done at a time that public sentiment has shifted in favor of industrial hemp and marijuana.

“All of those public sentiments seem to be ahead of the curve when it comes to what we actually know about the plant when it comes to hard facts,” Holland said. “What we don’t know about industrial hemp, what we don’t know about marijuana, is huge.”

Farmers who grow hemp in these pilot programs are free to sell their crop yields at the end of the season.

The 2018 farm legislation brings some good news for hemp farmers, too. Under previous law, hemp could only be sold across state lines if it had been processed. Now, it can be sold raw for processing in other states.

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