In 2018, the USDA issued the “Interim Final Rule for the Domestic Production of Hemp,” legalizing hemp production (grain, fiber, and cannabinoids) in the United States for the first time in nearly 70 years. Due to federal regulations and limitations in the past, there has been a severe lack of university published resources for industrial hemp production. As a “new” crop to midwestern agriculture, cultivar performance and best management practices (BMPs) have yet to be determined including planting methods, fertility requirements, rotational impacts, etc. The Interim Final Rule issued in 2018 was contested upon release but was published with the intent that it would be revised later as new research was conducted and information was gathered.    

Concurrently, a collaborative effort consisting of researchers, grower-cooperators, and private laboratories was formed to better understand production methods being used in addition to relative performance of hemp cultivars. The data from these efforts would be fed into an interactive data visualization tool known as the “Midwestern Hemp Database” (MHD). The MHD began as a collaboration between University of Illinois Extension, University of Wisconsin- Madison, Michigan State University Extension, Purdue University, Rock River Laboratory, and Pride Analytics on Consulting. In short, participation in this program provided hemp growers an exciting opportunity to receive discounted cannabinoid analysis in exchange for data collection and data sharing.

In its first year of operation, over 130 growers participated in the project, providing over 750 sample submissions across the four participating states (Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana). Data on production systems and agronomic performance of variety entries were also entered. By participating in this project, researchers and farmers can identify suitable hemp cultivars and production strategies across the Midwest. The results of the cannabinoid testing and information on their production systems, were made available in a publicly accessible interface. A report summarizing the 2020 growing season findings, a project overview, and grower-cooperator applications for 2021 are all available at the MHD website. (go.illinois.edu/HempDatabase).

During Fall 2020, the USDA reopened the public comment period for the U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program, asking for comments on several contested topics including: THC Testing and Negligence, Laboratory DEA Certification, Harvest Windows, and Exemptions for Research. At that time a report utilizing data from the MHD was submitted to address those issues specifically. In January 2021, the USDA published the “Final Rule for the Domestic Production of Hemp” that provides regulations to produce hemp in the United States. Upon review of the USDA Final Rule several substantial rule changes were made. Importantly, data presented from the MHD supported subsequent rule changes made regarding THC Testing and Negligence, Harvest Windows, and Exemptions for Research. Specific references to the Midwestern Hemp Database being used to inform policy change can be found throughout the final rule.

This ended up being a perfect project to take on during an unpredictable 2020 as we were able to take advantage of grower networks across the region and gain valuable insight on a new crop. Refining and expanding this program will improve a greatly underdeveloped knowledge base for hemp in our region and continue to allow science to impact policy. The resources and partnerships developed will enable hemp producers to make informed decisions building on the combined experiences of researchers and other growers. The groundwork for a successful future receiving grants to expand this project to more states (Kentucky, Iowa, and Ohio) and partnering laboratories (ACT Laboratories) in 2021 and beyond.

Phillip Alberti, Commercial Agriculture Educator