Oregon State University announced plans on Thursday to launch the nation’s largest hemp research center and begin certifying seeds — a service that protects intellectual property and supports farmers.

OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences will establish the Global Hemp Innovation Center, a virtual effort to connect researchers working with hemp from across disciplines, said Jay Noller, lead researcher and director of the center, based in Corvallis.

The center is welcome news to hemp growers because they’re working without the kind of technical guidance and historical data that other commodity farmers take for granted, said Matt Cyrus, a Sisters hemp farmer and president of the Deschutes County Farm Bureau.

“We’re all guessing and learning as we grow,” Cyrus said.

The best methods in fertilizing, watering and plant spacing are still unknown in hemp farming, Cyrus said.

Oregon farmers this year are registered to plant more than 50,000 acres of hemp with a projected pre-processing value of $1 billion, Cyrus said. That would make hemp Oregon’s most valuable commodity.

Cyrus recently planted 100 acres of hemp, which he said is now more valuable than the hay or cattle raised on his farm.

While Oregon farmers are raising high-CBD hemp plants, Noller wants to study hemp for its potential as a source of fiber, food and oil. “There are many, many uses across the Oregon economy and beyond,” he said.

The center will begin its seed certification program this growing season, Noller said. Researchers will germinate samples of seeds gathered from breeders to test germination rates and observe the plants in fields.

Without third-party testing, Oregon hemp growers have relied on anecdotes about which seed producers are reputable, Cyrus said.

At the same time, seed producers now have an opportunity to seek legal protection for the varieties they develop through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Variety Protection Office.

Hemp seeds certified by the university will be used by farmers registered with the state, according to OSU.

OSU will be the only university in the country certifying hemp seed, though state departments of agriculture in Colorado, North Dakota and Tennessee also have certification programs, according to OSU.

The university decided to launch the hemp research center after Congress adopted the 2018 Farm Bill, which removed hemp from the list of controlled substances. The bill also allows the United States to rebuild its hemp seed bank, which was destroyed in the 1970s in the wake of the Controlled Substances Act, Noller said.

Having worked with hemp researchers in China and Eastern Europe, Noller hopes to test foreign hemp varieties in Oregon.

OSU, formerly Oregon Agricultural College, partnered with USDA scientists to host a national hemp research center from the 1880s until 1932. The federal government banned growing hemp in 1936.

Trying to recover lost knowledge, Noller said he’s even contacted the descendants of former hemp researchers to see if they might have old field notes.

Oregon authorized hemp cultivation in 2009, but the Department of Agriculture didn’t license its first grower until 2015. By last year, Oregon ranked third in the United States, behind Montana and Colorado, in acres of licensed hemp planted. Deschutes County is Oregon’s third-largest hemp producer, according to the Department of Agriculture.

OSU’s third crop of hemp plants at 10 university experiment stations across Oregon will be planted by the end of June, according to a university press release. Hemp material will be harvested as the plants are flowering and will be provided to researchers. No pollen or seeds will be produced this year.

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, kmclaughlin@bendbulletin.com