Working her own farm helps keep Cornell hemp researcher grounded

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INTERVIEW: Heather Grab is Senior Lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Science where she teaches and mentors students in the Hemp Science Master’s Program. As a researcher in the school’s hemp program, her interests include hemp production and processing, agroecology and how insects interact with plants. Her recent work looks at the role of hemp in supporting diverse, native and managed pollinator communities, and how hemp can promote the pollination of other specialty crops.

HempToday: We can’t remind too often of the critical situation with the bee population, and the risks implied. Please summarize the challenge.

Heather Grab: The problem of bee declines is quite complex for several reasons. First, there are many species of bees. People often think of the honey bee, Apis mellifera, but there are as many as 20,000 species of bees across the globe. Some bee species are doing just fine while others are experiencing population declines and frequently the factors associated with the decline of populations for one species are different from those that impact another species. For example, climate change is a major risk factor for bee species that live in high elevation alpine habitats while loss of floral resources and pesticide exposure are risks for farmland species.

HT: What role does hemp have to play in addressing this problem?

HG: Hemp plays an important role because the male flowers of grain and fiber hemp provide an abundant pollen resource for bees during the mid-summer when there are few other floral resources available. The bees that visit hemp are also important pollinators of many other crops. By supporting bee populations during this critical period, hemp can help to sustain pollinators that are critical to the production of other crops like apples, blueberries, strawberries, squash, and tomato. In fact, tomato shares more than 60% of its pollinator community with hemp!

HT: Your work with hemp and bees is a natural fit with agroecology, one of your other interests. How can we best take advantage of what hemp offers for cleaning up farming and the overall environment?

HG: For farmers, hemp provides a valuable new rotation crop so that they can diversify their farming systems. Diverse farms help to suppress pests and disease and benefit farmland biodiversity. After harvest, hemp crops can help to build a more sustainable supply chain by replacing less sustainable products like cotton, plastics, fiberglass and cement that are used in our clothing, automobiles and homes.

HT: Hemp-derived biochar specifically seems to hold a lot of promise for many, many applications. Any thoughts on that?

HG: Thermally carbonized hemp fibers offer many promising applications for replacing mined products like graphene in capacitors and batteries as well as in the remediation of pollutants like phosphorus from wastewater.

HT: What’s the status of development in specialized equipment needed for processing hemp stems? Where are we now with decortication? What’s still needed?

HG: The mechanized process of decorticating fiber hemp is a well-developed technology but a major hurdle is in the buildout of large-scale processing facilities as well as in the adoption of small-scale equipment that can enable smaller cannabinoid hemp producers to reduce their waste and capture new value streams. On the fiber side, one area that I think has high potential for improvements is in the retting and degumming processes that happen before and after decortication.

HT: How do you see the markets for hurd and fiber outputs from that production unfolding? It’s the chicken-and-egg question.

HG: In the US we have been slowly building fiber hemp supply chains starting with specialty products that have higher margins. By demonstrating the viability of the supply chain with these small projects we are starting to see interest from large companies that would require higher volumes of production.

HT: The Cornell hemp program is a very broad one. Give us an idea of the scope. How many researchers are involved in hemp-related initiatives at Cornell?

HG: Our mission at Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is to deliver purpose-driven science. The Cornell University Hemp Group works across disciplines to tackle the challenges of this new industry through our world-renowned research as well as in our education and outreach.

The Hemp Group has more than 40 experts who work on topics including insect and disease pests of hemp, hemp’s place in crop rotation, hemp genetics, seed science, cultivation practices, production economics and hemp product development. We are proud to house one of the first graduate degree programs in Hemp Science where students can leverage our world-class resources and expertise to develop their knowledge and gain hands-on experience across the supply chain.

Through our Hemp Science degree program as well as our research and industry outreach we hope to support the developing hemp industry to make effective decisions based on the latest science.

HT: Cornell is making great contributions in research, but also in education through that master’s level program. Give us an overview of that program.

HG: The Master of Professional Studies (MPS) in Hemp Science is an accredited, course-based, one-year Master’s degree program that emphasizes professional development and intellectual investigation in the hemp industry.

Students interact with industry leaders as well as a multidisciplinary team of researchers, faculty and extension educators to develop specific skills in plant breeding and genetics; controlled environment and field crop production; processing; food, fiber and medicinal applications; and product development. Our coursework is designed so that students graduate as knowledgeable professionals educated in the scientific principles, market trends and the evolving cannabis regulatory environment and ready to enter the workplace with a broad range of skills to succeed in this dynamic industry.

Our curriculum includes Cannabis Biology, Society and Industry, Hemp Production Systems, Hemp Breeding and Genetics, Chemistry and Pharmacology of Cannabis, and Hemp Processing as well as the flexibility to take courses tailored to a student’s interest. Students are paired with a faculty advisor to complete a capstone project that showcases the skills and knowledge developed during their degree program.

HT: Cornell is the host of the Industrial Hemp Germplasm Repository, the national industrial hemp seed bank. Talk about the importance of this initiative.

HG: I cannot understate the critical importance of this key resource to all areas of the hemp industry. One of the most important messages that I impart in my courses on Hemp Production and Hemp Processing is that you need to begin your production with the end product in mind. This means selecting or even developing the right cultivars for your end product.

Hemp is a fantastically diverse crop in terms of its gene pool. Yet, the cultivars currently available on the market are frequently not well adapted to new growing environments, are not stable in their traits or not ideal for a particular end product. For example, we see in the southern US that fiber cultivars that were developed in other regions of the world for textile production flower very early, exceed THC limits, or produce low proportions of hurd which have been a key part of our emerging hemp market.

As a publicly available resource, the USDA Industrial Hemp Germplasm Repository at our Cornell AgriTech campus can help both University and private breeders to develop new cultivars to meet the diverse needs of the industry.

HT: Tell us a bit about your homestead at Full Circle Farm?

HG: My husband and I have been very lucky to steward our small homestead where we raise chickens, ducks, turkeys, dairy goats and pigs on a formerly abandoned dairy farm. We use regenerative farming practices and rotational grazing to remove invasive species and create a diversity of forested and open habitats for wildlife. Although I am a full-time academic, working the farm helps me stay grounded in the challenges that farmers must tackle.

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