After months of paperwork and navigating bureaucratic red tape, University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers have planted their first crop of legal hemp.
About 150 plants with the distinctive frond leaf, previously relegated to roadside ditches, are nestled in warm and slightly humid greenhouses on UNL's East Campus.
Industrial hemp has almost none of the psychoactive component, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), found in its cousin marijuana, but the family relationship has gotten both plants lumped together as Schedule I drugs along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
“You can get higher smoking a corn plant than you can on this stuff,” said Tom Clemente, a professor of biotechnology and one of two UNL researchers growing the plants.
The Schedule I designation has long put the kibosh on hemp as an industrial crop in the United States. But in 2014, Congress carved out an exemption for research purposes. Since then, at least 30 states have adopted legislation related to industrial hemp, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
While states like Colorado and Kentucky led the way in hemp cultivation, Nebraska’s path has been slow and halting. A bill that would have let Nebraska farmers apply to grow hemp got dusted by state legislators over fears it could be used as a cover for or gateway to marijuana. Senators eventually passed an amended bill restricting hemp research to colleges.
In February, UNL filed an application with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for permission to import seeds. Researchers had to jump through numerous hoops, including reinforcing the floor below where the seeds would be kept with metal because the DEA feared someone could saw through the wood to get to them.
On June 23, the DEA gave UNL the go-ahead to order seeds from Italy and Canada.
Clemente’s focus is on genetically engineering hemp to produce oils in its stalks and leaves for use as industrial lubricants and plastics. Once the oil has been extracted, the remaining pulp and fibers can be used in making materials that include paper and cardboard.
“You want to maximize the number of products you’re making per acre," Clemente said. "When you’re just selling biomass, it’s tough to make a buck off that.”
Hemp has plenty of potential. It’s resilient and doesn’t need much fertilizer. It also doesn't need much water. While other plants were withering during the 2012 drought, hemp was blooming across the state.
The plant, which already is grown and imported to the United States from countries including Canada and China, is used in more than 25,000 products, including seizure medicine, lotions and construction materials. Retail value of hemp products in the United States in 2015 amounted to at least $573 million dollars, according to estimates by the Hemp Industry Association and Hemp Business Journal.
And now, inside an East Campus greenhouse, young plants sporting five-fingered leaves sway in an artificial wind created by fans.
The wind is essential, said Dweikat, who had been pushing to get a hemp breeding program at UNL since 2012. Without it, hemp would slump over under its own weight.
He has varieties from Italy and Canada next to plants grown from seeds he gathered himself from ditches and fields in Lincoln and Seward counties, which he did with the blessing of DEA officials.
UNL Assistant Dean of Agricultural Research Hector Santiago said the university is working on a memorandum of understanding with the DEA to formalize plans to use feral hemp from Nebraska in breeding programs.
DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno and Nebraska Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Christin Kamm said the researchers got verbal permission to do research with wild hemp as long as the plants have a low THC content.
Any that contain more than .3 percent will be destroyed. Those that fall below the limit will be used to crossbreed crops that are well adapted to Nebraska's climate and will produce the fibers and oils industry wants.
Because federal approval came too late for an outdoor crop this year, Dweikat is focusing on the best way to grow hemp in greenhouse conditions.
“We’re just learning the ropes,” he said.
He’s already found that plants from the Canadian seed need more than 14 hours of light a day or they get spindly and produce prematurely flowering sprouts while wild plants from Nebraska and Italian seeds grow fine with 14 hours.
Dweikat plans to sow two acres of hemp this spring at a UNL research facility near Mead, then move on to planting in different parts of the state to test growing conditions.
While hemp proponents hope it could someday become a Nebraska cash crop, there is still a great deal of work to be done in terms of research -- and in convincing businesses and farmers to invest.
“You can develop a feed stock, but you need the industry to develop around it,” Clemente said. “If there is no industry for transportation or to take the stuff, it’s going to sit like a log. So there is a lot of work to do outside the sheer biology. There is a lot on the business side.”
UNL hopes to partner with companies and business investors in the blooming hemp industry, like Omaha-startup Bastcore, which turns hemp stalks into fiber products. He also is working on procuring federal funding recently made available for hemp research.