After long wait, hemp research moving forward in Nebraska

May 17, 2016, 2:05 a.m. ·

Hemp is grown in Europe and Canada as a commercial crop, but has been heavily regulated in the U.S. (Photo courtesy Flickr/Steve P2008)

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers are looking toward planting their first research crop of industrial hemp after receiving long-awaited approval form the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

UNL researchers have received the approval they've been waiting for to plant industrial hemp on research plots in Nebraska. They are hoping to learn about how well it grows in the state and whether it could be a suitable, and profitable crop, for farmers.

Industrial hemp contains only trace amounts of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, but planting of hemp is still tightly regulated. It can't be grown commercially in Nebraska, but state lawmakers voted to approve hemp planting for university research in 2014. Hemp research was also approved nationally in the 2014 Farm Bill.

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UNL researcher Ismail Dweikat holds up the DEA permit that Nebraska scientists needed to plant industrial hemp. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News)

But before researchers can plant, they have to obtain a DEA permit. Nebraska researchers started that process a year and a half ago, including a tour of the research site near Mead, Nebraska with DEA officials. Now the permit is in hand.

“Without that permit we are not allowed to grow industrial hemp, even though you could drive around the state of Nebraska and you could find hemp on farms everywhere,” said Ismail Dweikat, a plant breeder and lead researcher with the hemp project at UNL.

Nebraska now joins states like Colorado and Kentucky that are currently engaged in hemp research. Dweikat says Nebraska is playing catch up with those states.

“We need our hands to be free to do research so farmers hopefully in the next few years would be able to grow it as a rotational crop, as a fiber crop, as a food crop," Dweikat said.

With a permit to grow hemp, the next job is to actually plant. Dweikat says a shipment of hemp seed is being held on reserve from a supplier in Canada. Seed cannot be bought across state lines, it can only be purchased from foreign countries. It can be acquired from other researchers in the U.S., but only as part of a collaborative research project.

There’s still time to plant the state’s first hemp crop in recent history. Dwiekat says planting season for hemp can last into early June.

Industrial hemp could be grown for many possible uses, including fiber for clothing or paper, grain for food or livestock feed, or production of hemp oil for biodiesel.

“You can make about 300 gallons of biodiesel per acre, which is much better than soybeans,” Dweikat said. “(Hemp) controls weeds because it can grow so dense. It doesn’t have any major insect (pests), so you don’t have to spray with insecticide.”

Dweikat believes the U.S. could compete with Canada and Europe in hemp production. But it could be some time before farmers start to raise hemp commercially. Federal law still prohibits wide-scale planting.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Story updated 5/17 at 8:22pm.