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Quality seed is an essential part of any production system. Yields, disease and pest resistance, drought resistance, and stand uniformity are just a few of the many value traits targeted in crop seed development. Hemp will undergo considerable transformation over the coming decade as competent professionals apply rigor to the development of hemp seed genetics. Hemp farmers continue to suffer at the mercy of unscrupulous or incompetent seed sellers.

Seed breeders have primarily focused on cannabinoids, in lockstep with that burgeoning, volatile segment. Others, like New West Genetics, have leveraged microbiology and statistical analysis in the development of novel, multipurpose varieties. Wendy Mosher joined a panel discussion at the winter Hemp Summit on Jan. 14 and relayed the company’s accomplishments, and goals to develop hemp crop genetics. Her focus on dual-purpose crops places New West at the leading edge of sustainable hemp production in the U.S.

Seed breeders have an important role in developing sustainable production systems for hemp. Livestock feed is expected to drive hemp production significantly, once hemp seed is cleared for feeding livestock or poultry.

Scaled extraction operations can then glean cannabinoids from remaining floral material. This is the model adopted on some Northern European farms, and Canadian farmers are also experimenting with a large-acreage model as they add cannabinoids to their existing hemp seed grain enterprises.

The task of hemp seed breeders is an immense but exciting project. Hemp markets have not developed sufficiently to guide seed breeders in developing fiber varieties. The applications and end uses are key for seed breeders to develop a road map for fiber varieties.

Mosher has said that New West does not have sufficient input for developing fiber varieties, but markets set these specifications. Right now, hemp seed is poised to expand in 2021, and fiber is well out on the horizon.

As a result, Mosher’s focus is on the most essential traits needed for a viable, dual-purpose crop, including agronomic traits, but also novel traits like 80-90% occurrence of females. Nutritional profiles will be a priority trait for hemp seed feeding, and it is possible that amino acid profiles could be targeted to various species through plant breeding. At the very least, breeders will have success in raising the overall amino acid levels in hemp seed.

More likely, producers will supplement corn/soy rations with a percentage of hemp seed meal. This is a ready, high volume market, that can quickly scale, if feeders see hemp seed as a desirable, cost-effective component of rations.

The ability of row crop farmers to integrate a new crop into U.S. crop rotations could pay sustainability dividends. Anecdotally, we know that cannabis can increase organic matter in soils, enhance water absorption, and extract soil contaminants.

This creates ample opportunity in production systems. U.S. crop rotations are massive, unyielding systems that developed over many years of market pressure and policy. Adding a new crop will happen over many years and requires a number of market and production related problems to be solved. This is also true for organic producers who are keen to trial hemp as a cover crop.

The tools and skills needed to successfully establish hemp stands will be hard earned by farmers, and plant breeders have a compelling role in developing both the tools and skills.

Chase Hubbard is a senior analyst at The Jacobsen. For more information, forecasts and commodity price reporting, visit thejacobsen.com.

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