Texas Students Breeding Better Hemp

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COLLEGE STATION – In a shopworn building on the outskirts of campus, Texas A&M Professor Russell Jessup and a team of students are growing and crossbreeding hemp, a once and future cash crop with a colorful history and a whiff of taboo.

They approach their studies with the fervor of startup entrepreneurs.

“When I was working with perennial grasses, it was hard to find students to work with me,” Jessup says. “Now, students seek us out.”

The students tend waist-high cannabis sativa plants that look like something from a High Times magazine cover, but their research has mainstream implications for a market that could reach $16.8 billion globally by 2027. Commercial applications for hemp range far beyond CBD oils and gummies to include paper, textiles, building materials, seed grains for animal feed, aromatics for pharmaceuticals and a type of concrete known as hempcrete.

When federal and then state lawmakers authorized production of hemp in 2018 and 2019, respectively, they ended eight decades of prohibition under marijuana law. Texas farmers who wanted to get in early had to use seeds purchased from elsewhere and unsuited to the Texas climate.

Much of the initial crop flowered prematurely in the heat, delivering just 5 percent of expected yields, Jessup and others say. Plants grew to varying heights, a nonstarter for modern, mechanized agriculture.

“It was apparent from the beginning that we need a Texas-adapted hemp,” Jessup said during a recent tour of the facilities where the young researchers are creating hybrid lines to meet that need.

The first task was to transform a former cotton research building and adjacent greenhouse into a hemp-growing operation. A commercial partner, Rare Earth Genomics, installed air conditioning and contributed upward of $1.5 million for research. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences added a water-purifying system to nourish tender shoots. Students painted walls and poured concrete for new flooring in the greenhouse. They installed special LED lights to speed up the growing cycle.

“I’m a very impatient plant breeder,” Jessup said.

Gaining acceptance
Jessup volunteered to lead A&M’s Industrial Hemp Breeding Program when it was announced three years ago. His students include undergrads and Ph.D. candidates.

Ezekiel Soto, for example, is a first-year master’s student whose work focuses on plant gender. Clayton Moore, co-founder of a student group to foster better understanding of cannabis and hemp, is compiling a public collection of genetic material. Ian McGrath, an undergrad from Kyle, found cannabis to be a positive alternative to the anxiety and depression medications he was prescribed growing up.

“We’re trying to bring this into an academic realm and gain professional acceptance,” McGrath said.

Now in the final stages of a three-year funded trial, the grow rooms and greenhouse are filled with healthy plants, all of which contain less than the legal limit of 0.3 percent of THC, the psychoactive agent of marijuana. Some varieties give off interesting aromas and flavors, like papaya or blueberry, which could be tailored for the food or pharmaceutical industries.

Jessup’s team initially looked at 20 of the 400-plus hemp varieties approved by the Texas Department of Agriculture but found only one or two that showed promise for cultivation in Texas. After two years of crossbreeding and greenhouse experimentation, Jessup and his students recently started their third round of field trials at five sites run by the A&M Extension Service where they will face real-world growing conditions in climates as varied as the arid Panhandle and the semitropical South Texas coastal plains.

The College Station group also is working to develop a THC-free hemp variety, which Jessup says would be a “game-changer” for farmers, eliminating a major legal liability.

THC levels rise as plants mature and can exceed the legal threshold if the hemp is not harvested in time. If inspectors find a single plant out of compliance, they can order the entire crop destroyed.

This makes it difficult to find insurance, and nearly impossible to find it at an affordable price, said Lisa Pittman, an Austin attorney who has worked in the cannabis space since 2015. The traditional linkage to marijuana — still categorized by the federal government as Schedule I drug alongside heroin, peyote and LSD — also makes it difficult and more expensive for farmers and legal CBD retailers to get bank accounts.

A solution, Pittman said, would be to increase the “arbitrary” 0.3 percent THC limit and to acknowledge that farmers who pay for state licenses, submit to a background checks and provide GPS coordinates for their fields are not likely to be pot growers in disguise.

“I hope the perception is that it’s not marijuana junior,” she said. “It’s rope, not dope.”

Despite the challenges, Pittman said, Texas has issued 394 active licenses for approximately 850 acres of hemp production and 4 million square feet of greenhouse space. That’s a modest beginning compared to the 7 million acres of cotton expected to come under cultivation this year, but a solid sign of interest, Pittman and others said.

Among hemp businesses in Texas is Dallas-based Oak Cliff Cultivators, which was represented at the Texas Cannabis Policy Conference held in March, also at Texas A&M. The two-day event brought together scientists, medical-marijuana providers, parents of children helped by the drug, and other advocates of expanding legal access in Texas.

During a breakout session titled, “Trends in Cannabis Consumer Demand,” Martha Velez, who owns Oak Cliff Cultivators with her husband, urged those who work in the CBD business to focus on consumer education, maintain clean retail shops and behave professionally so the industry can continue building support in the state.

“I am a Texas hemp farmer,” she declared with obvious pride, “and I want my business to be successful.”

Ranching and cannabis
So does Aaron Owens, who will plant his third crop this summer in the Hill Country. When the feds authorized hemp pilot programs in a few states in 2014, Owens moved part-time to Colorado and, with a partner, began extracting CBD there. He brought some of that back to West Texas, where he was raising goats and cattle at the time, and started marketing it person to person.

People in that conservative part of the state were receptive to CBD products, Owens said, once he convinced them he wasn’t peddling pot.

After legalization here, he moved to Dripping Springs, about 25 miles west of Austin, and started Tejas Hemp with an initial 2-acre crop in 2020. This year, he’s expanding to a larger farm in Luckenbach, where he expects to plant 20 to 40 acres.

“There’s two things I love, and that’s ranching and cannabis,” Owens said. “I didn’t want to move to California. I dug my heels in.”

He expects more Texas farmers to embrace hemp and build a robust industry here – eventually. One thing impeding faster growth is the lack of a gin and other hemp manufacturing operations in the state. This type of infrastructure will cost millions, and the crop must prove itself first.

Owens is among those collaborating with the Industrial Hemp Breeding Program to help move Texas toward that goal. He contributes genetic samples and helps Jessup network with other growers.

“It’s very exciting to take the genetics you’re working with and get it into the hands of Texas A&M,” Owens said.

Logical place
College Station is a logical place for such research. The hemp lab is right off Agronomy Road, and the Extension Service operates 13 experimental farms around the state. One of Jessup’s lower-priority initiatives would produce a variety with stems and leaves that are close to Aggie maroon in color.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences had one of its largest enrollments ever this year, placing students in 15 departments, from Poultry Science to Plant Pathology and Microbiology. The school is responding to the growing interest in hemp and cannabis as legalization efforts march forward, said Danielle Harris, assistant dean for student success.

“We’re always looking for alternative crops for (farmers),” added David Baltensperger, head of the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. “We look at what we use in the U.S. and ask how we can grow it here. The most recent crop that we’ve invested a little in is hemp.”

He and others tout hemp’s versatility, with separate markets for fibers, grains and oils.

Baltensperger recalled the explorer Christopher Columbus, who depended on hemp for the canvas sails that propelled his ships and the resin that kept them watertight, for the fabric that clothed his crew and the oil that kept their lamps burning, and even for the paper that his Bible was printed on.

He noted, too, that hemp-derived fibers already are used in automobile production in Texas. They’re just imported from China and other countries.

Baltensperger said he is bullish on hemp’s U.S. renaissance, but cautions that the boom may not come as quickly as some enthusiasts hope.

Jessup’s researchers revel in the challenge, judging from their good-natured slogan: “We’re coming for you, cotton.”