By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
WILBERFORCE, Ohio — Central State University (CSU) planted its first hemp seeds the same day they received their permit. They kept that motivation moving with their research, and their efforts paid off. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has awarded them a $1.3 million hemp research contract.
The three-year project is designed to help the agency better understand the chemistry of smokable hemp flower and vape products, said Craig Schluttenhofer, Ph.D. and research assistant professor of natural products at CSU.
Dr. Schluttenhofer and Brandy E. Phipps, Ph.D., research assistant professor of food, nutrition, and health, are the project’s principal investigators. Both work in the Agricultural Research Development Program in the College of Engineering, Science, and Agriculture at CSU.
“Hemp flower is the flower of the hemp plant that has been dried and cured,” Phipps said. “We will be testing hemp flower as a smokable, cigarette-type product.”
There are three major crops within hemp, Schluttenhofer said. Producers can grow it for grain, fiber, or the metabolites, like CBD. Marijuana and hemp are both the same plant, cannabis sativa. To be classified as hemp, the plant must have less than 0.3 percent of THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol), the intoxicating component.
“I have some metabolite hemp and some fiber hemp growing here,” Schluttenhofer said. “I was trying to get grain hemp, but due to COVID and trying to get seed out of Europe, it didn’t get here until August, which was too late for planting.”
The three hemp types are all grown differently, he said. The grain and fiber plants are grown in 7- to 8-inch spaced rows. Producers grow fiber with about 35 plants per square foot. Grains are about half that.
“You want the fiber to get as tall as possible,” Schluttenhofer said. “You want plants of upwards of 10-feet tall, grain about 4 - to 5-feet tall because you’re going to be coming through with a combine to harvest it. The fiber is going to be cut with a cycle bar or a disc mower, like a small grain crop.”
Hemp flowers are more like tobacco, he said. The plants are spaced 4- to 5-feet apart in rows 4- to 5-feet apart with a lot of intensive hand labor. The metabolite plants tend to be shorter and bushier instead of single upright stems. They can be anywhere from 3- to 8-feet tall and just as wide.
The grain hemp is used primarily in human food as a nutritional health food, one of the few that have a complete amino acid profile, he explained. A lot of people call it a superfood.
Currently, that’s the primary use for grain hemp, he said. The university is working on trying to get it approved as a feed additive for livestock. Researchers think there are a lot of opportunities in that for the hemp industry.
Hemp fiber is used for thousands of different applications, Schluttenhofer said. The main use is in biocomposites. The fibers have a high strength to weight ratio. Europeans use it in some car panels; it’s also in textiles, ropes, and animal bedding. There is even a product called hempcrete that builders can use as a sustainable product.
Currently, most people are growing hemp for the metabolites, he said. That’s where the money was for several years, but the profit margins have shrunk considerably.
The hemp industry and its supporters continue to advocate for more hemp-derived metabolites to be approved for use in foods, drinks, and supplements. According to CSU, the FDA’s stance on protecting consumer health and safety is vital in the face of such activism.
The results of CSU’s hemp project will be provided to FDA to help close the scientific gap on understanding hemp products, Phipps said.