Shelby Ellison has directed the industrial hemp program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-M) since August 2020. An assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture, Ellison’s primary research interest is preserving, characterizing, and utilizing genetic diversity in alternative crops such as hemp to meet the needs of Wisconsin farmers. She holds a bachelor of science degree in genetics from UW-M, and a Ph.D. in genetics, with an emphasis in plant breeding and biodiversity, from the University of California-Davis. She previously worked as a plant geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.
HempToday: The state has a serious hemp history.
Shelby Ellison: Wisconsin is interesting because it was a big producer in the 1930s and 40s. We were primarily a producer of rope and twine, and long bast fibers for canvas making. When we started growing again in 2018, there were still traces of a hemp culture. There are still people living who remember hemp being grown, and processing facilities.
We have a lot of feral hemp or “ditch weed” that has persisted since those times. I remember seeing it when I was growing up. Now it’s a great resource. I’ve been actively trying to collect that hemp with researchers in other states across the Midwest so we can preserve those genetics.
HT: It sounds like the perfect situation for a researcher.
SE: We’re a very diversified farming state so there’s always a ton of interest in agricultural research. I’m fascinated by the challenge of figuring out where the feral hemp in this part of the country came from — that which survived or was not eradicated. If you trace it back to the original populations that were grown, we know there was some Italian seed, and some Chinese. That’s across a big section of the country, the western part of Midwest, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin.
We have tracked down some seeds and plant material from 1908 at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, which probably originally came from the University’s agricultural extension program. We know about breeding efforts in the 1920s and ‘30s, but that research certainly was not very high tech.
How are farmers feeling about the potential of this new old crop?
Wisconsin has built up a lot of production fast. We’re in the top 10 in the United States after just three years. Nearly 1,200 licenses were granted in both 2019 and 2020.
People are coming back year after year, getting better and gaining efficiency. Those who stick with it and treat the first years as an educational experience will be well-suited to win once the infrastructure is in place.
Things will be tricky this year. The situation in CBD will drive some diversification. A lot of people will try to grow fiber.
HT: What’s the outlook for fiber in Wisconsin?
SE: Given our climate, all indicators are that fiber will be Wisconsin’s main output from hemp. For things to be economical, we’ll need production facilities in every state in the USA. But large-scale facilities will need consistent supplies of feedstock. We have massive paper mills in Wisconsin, for example, but these kinds of factories require massive input.
HT: What are you specifically studying at the University?
SE: At UW-Madison, we’re looking at fertility, and exploring what production practices and varieties work best in our northern climate, and collecting data on yield, CBD and CBG levels.
We’re also involved with the Midwestern Hemp Database, which is spearheaded by the University of Illinois. We’re collecting and sharing data from growers all across the region, and the project provides discounted laboratory services to participants.
We’re also working with the University’s Biological Systems Engineering program on a small decorticator so we can do research on fiberboard, bioplastics and textiles. We hope that will kickstart downstream product development.
HT: How do you feel about GMO and gene editing of industrial hemp?
SE: There is a time and a place for different types of technology. I’m not anti-GMO or gene editing. I just don’t think either is necessary immediately. We should first explore hemp’s natural genetic diversity and do what we can with natural cross pollination to get the desired traits for different end uses. If it’s for CBD, that’s different from large grain crops, for example, or fiber hemp.
Gene editing can be used to eliminate “bad” traits, and for such things as pest resistance. On the other hand it’s also possible to increase “good” traits such as added nutritional value. The most important thing is to think about the impact those traits can have on society and the planet.
HT: Draw the connection between hemp and climate change for us.
SE: It’s remarkable the amount of biomass hemp can produce in a week. It’s amazing compared to other crops. We also see strong preliminary evidence of hemp’s potential for phytoremediation and carbon cycling. It all comes down to how the crop is managed.
Let me also suggest that, as a cannabis community, we must be aware that controlled indoor growing can be very bad for the environment. We need to think of ways of growing that make a positive impact, holistically. We need to grow more and more crops, and in different ways. A diversity of crops is very beneficial.
HT: Was there anything that surprised you in your recent survey of U.S. hemp farmers?
SE: It wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but the overriding observation is that everything needs research! And a lot of respondents said they look for more research on the economic side. The survey results are important because they indicate an order for things to develop. It’s going to be very interesting to see how the hemp sectors play out across the USA.