ROCK CREEK RANCH — Groundbreaking research on industrial hemp and the best ways to grow the crop are underway in Klamath Falls.
Workers on Wednesday finished harvesting their crop of industrial hemp for Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center at Rock Creek Ranch, located off Highway 140 West. The approximately one-acre, two-year operation is part of a multi-state, regional water efficiency trial aimed at identifying the best ways to grow and irrigate industrial hemp.
The project has additional sites in Hermiston and Ontario, as well as Fresno and Davis, California. The overall project is mainly funded by about $1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is designed to help determine best practices for irrigating the crop.
Biswanath Dari, assistant professor and agronomist at KBREC, is leading the harvest in Klamath Falls.
“Hemp is a very new crop,” Dari said. “We have no studies so far on how much water hemp expires — how much water leaves the plant. That is called the crop co-efficient ... output versus input.”
Testing the stress levels
Dari said KBREC staff imposed different irrigation rates and subsurface drip, in order to see how hemp responds to the water delivery.
“It’s a very precise way of applying water accurately so that we can know exactly how much water we’re applying to the crop,” said Jeffrey Steiner, associate director of the GHIC.
Irrigation water is delivered through the subsurface drip system 3.5 inches below the soil. Water is delivered at different rates and the plants are analyzed for water use efficiency at each level.
“The plant will be healthier if it is 100% ET (full water delivery) versus a plant that would be stressed and less healthy and less green,” said Dari. “We impose that stress in the plant by decreasing the ET 20%, 20%, 20%.”
He said the experiment is to find how well the plants perform under less than ideal conditions.
“If plants ... perform well in 60% ET, then I will tell all the people of Klamath Falls ‘You don’t have to irrigate a lot. You can cut down your irrigation but still you can get a good crop growth,’” he said.
Dari said the soil off Highway 140 West is “sandy,” and ideal for hemp, which has a deep root system.
Echoing Dari, Steiner said the Klamath Falls area is an ideal location because “it’s a good soil representation to Southern Oregon” and that KBREC has the infrastructure for this type of water research.
Steiner emphasized that the study doesn’t aim to persuade irrigators to switch out their crops, but to educate those wishing to learn more about hemp and how it grows.
“We’re not looking to replace alfalfa or potatoes or grains,” Steiner said. “The whole purpose of this entire project is (about) how we sustainably incorporate hemp into American agriculture.”
“We want to know how hemp and potatoes can be grown in rotation, and not hurt one another,” Steiner added.
Steiner said results from the trial could be available as soon as February or March. Dari said he plans to give a presentation, virtual or in-person, on the study’s findings.
Long hemp history at OSU
The Global Hemp Innovation Center, which oversees the project sites, was established in 2019.
OSU has a long history with hemp research, having been the site of the National Hemp Center from 1880 to 1934, according to GHIC Director Jay Noller. Hemp was outlawed in the United States in 1936, though Noller, founder of the GHIC, said that some OSU faculty continued to unofficially grow the crop on campus for research purposes until it was removed in 1970.
While hemp is a legal American crop as of 2018, official hemp production missed out on the agricultural innovations of the last century, said Steiner.
“It’s during that 80 years (between 1936 and 2019) … that’s when there’s been major improvements in agriculture,” Steiner said. “(Hemp) was basically buried in a time capsule for 80 years.”
Despite multiple pilot projects to grow hemp in the U.S. prior to the decriminalization of the plant, official hemp research did not begin in the U.S. until 2019, Steiner said.
“It wasn’t until the decriminalization of hemp as a crop that then Oregon State University was able to start doing research,” Steiner said. “Oregon is an important place for hemp and it needs to be an important crop for Oregon State as a land-grant university to lead research.”