UMES hemp field trial encourages new cash crop for farmers

Salisbury Independent
Posted 8/24/21

The University of Maryland Eastern Shore’s Industrial Hemp Program is in full-swing for the 2021 season with more than 500 plants growing lushly in a research plot on campus to provide growers …

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UMES hemp field trial encourages new cash crop for farmers

Dr. Sadanand Dhekney, left, gives a tour to farmers who might be interested in growing hemp as a cash crop.
Dr. Sadanand Dhekney, left, gives a tour to farmers who might be interested in growing hemp as a cash crop.
Todd Dudek Photo
Posted

The University of Maryland Eastern Shore’s Industrial Hemp Program is in full-swing for the 2021 season with more than 500 plants growing lushly in a research plot on campus to provide growers and potential growers with information on what varieties are suited for the Eastern Shore’s macroclimate.

Planted in mid-May, the field trial includes 50 varieties, said Dr. Sadanand Dhekney, an Associate Professor and director of the program. 

“For each variety, there are 10 plants randomly interspersed throughout the field to account for differences in soil, nutrients and moisture, which affect growth and the level of cannabinoids and other phytochemicals.”

One of the “early” varieties is flowering, Dhekney said. Hemp is photoperiod sensitive, or light-sensitive, and is a short-day plant. When the day becomes shorter, then they flower. Hemp begins to flower when the day length is 12 hours or less, he said.

CBD production involves the female plant only. If a female plant is pollinated and produces a seedpod, then the plant concentrates on seed development rather than cannabinoid production, which is more desirable.

“Removing the male plants in the field at the right time (a process called rouging) prevents pollination and leads to a yield with increased levels of cannabinoids,” Dhekney said. “They need to not only grow well, they also have to have high CBD levels.  It’s a balancing act.”

UMES students involved in the research are trained to identify male plants and remove them at the appropriate time.

They are also schooled on how to identify infected plants in the field. Powdery mildew is a common disease among hemp plants, Dhekney said. Students, typically majoring in Agriculture, Food and Resource Sciences or Toxicology, get real-time field experience, which prepares them for better jobs in the market.

The research also attracts other majors. Desmond Love is a Marketing major and is interested in working with Dhekney to prepare him for a career in the emerging industry.

Once the crop is harvested (early varieties in September with late varieties at the end of October) and the trial is over, Dhekney and students in the lab will conduct chemical analysis of each variety to establish levels of different cannabinoids and terpenes.

Cannabinoids are useful for their medicinal properties while terpenes determine aroma as well as medicinal properties. Information on what varieties performed well for CBD production will be passed along to growers and potential growers partnering with the university’s program as mandated by the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Extension activities, such as the upcoming field tours on Friday, Aug. 27, and Thursday, Sept. 30, are designed to disseminate information in a hands-on environment.

Industrial hemp producers and stakeholders can view the plant in its vegetative stage of development, flowering stage and observe harvesting. Other topics covered include insects that are pests, diseases and nutritional requirements for successful cultivation.

The tours are free.

Farmers also benefit from research in the lab. Exit surveys from last year’s trial, showed that producers saw a significant number of viruses and disease in hemp plants. To combat this, Dhekney said, students in the lab are being trained in plant tissue culture and micropropagation that allows them to take plant tissues and isolate the meristem (growing part of the plant).

“Because of plant tissue culture, we are able to supply the producers with model stock plants that are free of diseases,” Dhekney said. “It is clean material for farmers to plant with the potential for more successful hemp cultivation.”

For more information on the hemp tours or UMES’ Industrial Hemp Program, contact Dhekney at 410-655-6198 or by emailing sdhekney@umes.edu.