BOONE COUNTY, Mo. — The state’s newest cash crop is taking root down a gravel road, near soybeans and corn, at the University of Missouri’s Bradford Research Center on the outskirts of Columbia.
Its exact location at the research station is a secret, because MU officials do not want trespassers picking it.
The crop is hemp, a type of cannabis without high levels of THC, the chemical that gets people high. It is found in thousands of products, from makeup to construction materials. Growing it had been illegal for decades under 20th-century tough-on-drugs laws, but the federal government, and the state Legislature, have loosened such policies in recent years.
This year, Missouri lawmakers scrapped a restrictive pilot program that allowed hemp farming only on plots of 10 to 50 acres. The new law, which takes effect Aug. 28, has no acreage restrictions, though growers will still need to be licensed with the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
The law allowed universities to start growing the plant right away. Data collected will be made available to farmers in time for next spring’s planting season.
“When you’re starting a brand new crop — you know, we haven’t grown this for 100 years — so when you start a brand new crop, we don’t know the basics about it,” said Tim Reinbott, assistant director of MU’s Agricultural Experiment Station. “Getting a chance, this head start, that we can grow it and feel it and touch it and learn something about it before next year when farmers get to grow it in Missouri — that’s huge.”
Reinbott said St. Louis-based Tiger Fiber LLC is sponsoring the study. Patrick Van Meter, the CEO, said in an email that “Missouri has so much potential in this space and we are thrilled to be right in the middle of it.”
Reinbott said the company provided seeds, and that it does not expect MU to sell the product after it is harvested. He said the company is monitoring THC levels to make sure they don’t exceed the legal limit of .3% THC. Reinbott said the hemp grown through this experiment will be destroyed.
“They were just wanting us to learn about it and be able to show farmers,” he said. He said researchers will be able to showcase the crop at field days this month and next.
The research is taking place in Columbia and at six other MU centers across the state: the Fisher Delta Research Center, the Greenley Research Center, Forage Systems Research Center, Hundley-Whaley Research Center, Graves-Chapple Research Center and the Southwest Research Center.
On July 18, during a visit to a 1-acre plot at Bradford, Reinbott walked through the rows of hemp, hoping that a recent rain would aid the parched plants, which had recently sprouted, but unevenly.
“We’re hoping the rain will get the rest of this up now,” Reinbott said.
On Monday, he gave an update: “It’s struggling. Weeds have become an issue and we applied some herbicide for that. Other locations look fantastic.”
Reinbott said dry conditions in Columbia, not tilling the field where the seeds were planted, hotter soil than other locations and the dry days during which the seeds were planted all appear to have inhibited growth at the Bradford center.
More than 20 retailers have opened around St. Louis in the last three years dedicated to the sale of CBD, a compound found in cannabis increasingly used to treat ailments like pain and anxiety. But does it work? And is it legal? The answers are still unclear.
Tom Raffety, who farms corn and soybeans near Charleston in southeast Missouri, is president of the Missouri Hemp Producers Association, founded in March as the Legislature was debating the new rules.
He said he’s heard “horror stories” from farmers in other states who sank money into bad seeds.
“There’s only so much information you can find on the internet, and much of it’s wrong,” he said. “Hopefully the university research will really give some guidance to growers moving forward.”
Reinbott said researchers want to know what row spacing works best and how the crop grows in different regions of the state, where climate and soil varies. Also unclear is how tolerant the plant is to drought, and how much watering is necessary.
And, Reinbott said, researchers would like to know more about weed control.
“We hear these stories about how it grows so fast and you don’t have to worry about herbicides or weed control,” he said. “Well, that’s fantastic, if it’s true.”
Raffety said farmers in Colorado, where hemp is already grown, grapple with different growing conditions.
“We have humidity; they don’t have that,” he said. “What kind of insect and disease pressure might we be facing that isn’t necessarily a concern out West?”
Another problem growers will face is sourcing quality seed.
Rep. Rick Francis, R-Perryville, the sponsor of this year’s hemp law, said he thought the emerging hemp industry — thousands of products are derived from the plant — could be used as an economic development tool in rural parts of the state.
“There are so many products, from wood flooring to clothing to makeup and construction materials,” he said.
Francis said the next challenge, after next year’s growing season, will be connecting growers to buyers.
“That’s one of the keys,” he said, adding that there are already working groups trying to solve marketplace dilemmas.
Jack Suntrup • 573-556-6184 @JackSuntrup on Twitter firstname.lastname@example.org