That’s what happened to Heather Darby, an agronomy professor at the University of Vermont—a land-grant school in a state that legalized hemp. Darby was eager to start hemp projects, but when she approached the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets and the local DEA office to file requests, she was stalled by bureaucracy. For example, the DEA paperwork she needed was only formatted for marijuana-research requests, not hemp. Navigating these oversights, Darby says, “was the biggest barrier.”
Even in North Carolina, a state that’s been relatively proactive about allowing hemp, Post chose to keep her research projects small her first year. There was a lag in the state law that would legalize the work, and she risked getting arrested if police found her driving around with hemp buds.
Then there were issues with funding. Researchers typically get money from the federal or state government. But the 2014 farm bill didn’t allocate funds for hemp the way it did for, say, citrus disease. And since land-grant universities are federally backed, administrators have been hesitant to funnel their budget toward a Schedule I drug.
As such, hemp researchers have had to get financially creative. For example, the University of Kentucky—another land-grant school—funds hemp research through private companies, says David Williams, a plant and soil scientist. Though many private investors ask for study results to be proprietary, Williams claims that the vast majority of the research produced by these partnerships has been made public.
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At the University of Vermont, however, Darby has mostly seen private offers where the information can’t be shared. To her, that agreement runs counter to her job description. “My goal through the University of Vermont is to make sure whatever we’re doing is for the public good,” she says, which has “made it difficult for us to secure funds.” To help, Darby launched a public, crowdsourced campaign in 2016 with the goal of raising $25,000. As of January, the campaign was only a quarter of the way there.
Post is part of the minority whose work is covered by state and federal funding. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture granted her more than $100,000 in the past two years, and in 2018 she also won a one-time, $16,000 grant from a U.S. Department of Agriculture fund set aside for pesticide research.
While several of her requests were successful, Post understands that entering a competitive grant-application pool with a crop as new as hemp can be intimidating. “I think people, from what I’ve seen, are afraid to put that time and energy and effort into a big proposal knowing the odds,” she says. “It’s already hard with corn and soybean, so it’s daunting for a minor crop.”
Amid all this confusion, hemp scientists are trying to unravel the intricacies of farming the plant. Most are starting with two key strains that are used to make fiber and seed. For these strains, some of the groundwork is set, thanks to relevant research in Europe and Canada. Scientists also know that fiber and seed hemp behave like other major U.S. crops—farmers sow individual seeds and machine-harvest the plants. And since fiber hemp was the only version previously farmed on an industrial scale in the United States, Post also tapped into the limited academic literature for a sense of the plant’s basic qualities.