The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently published an updated version of its Hemp Handbook last month. The first version of the handbook was published in September 2021, followed by a second update in April 2023. This third and newest version was published online in July, called “USDA Hemp Descriptor and Phenotyping Handbook, Version 3,” expands on numerous sections including hemp pathology, agronomic evaluation, and fiber quality, and protocols for things like feral hemp collection, seed threshing, tissue culture, pollen collection, and more.
Throughout all of these versions, the handbook seeks to help researchers with a variety of objectives, from helping “breeders and researchers in identifying accessions with specific traits to facilitate germplasm selection within hemp improvement programs” to filling in gaps in the USDA hemp collection and developing ways to collect and conserve hemp varieties. “The methods and protocols are based on peer-reviewed literature and/or crowd-sourced from the hemp community,” the handbook states. “Robust, reliable, and high-dimensional data generated from these phenotyping efforts will empower conservation of hemp genetic diversity and aid selection of materials with unique trait combinations for breeding programs.”
The USDA’s phenotype results are stored both digitally and are publicly available through the Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) and the Plant Genetic Resources Unit (PGRU), based in Geneva, New York. “The Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) provides information about USDA national collections of animal, microbial, and plant genetic resources (germplasm) important for food and agricultural production,” the USDA website states. “GRIN documents these collections through informational pages, searchable databases, and links to USDA-ARS projects that curate the collections.”
The GRIN NPGS (U.S. National Plant Germplasm System) doesn’t serve home or community gardeners, or home school or K-12 school education efforts, but instead was made for professional plant breeders and researchers.
The USDA explains on its website that the goal of germplasm collection at the PGRU is to preserve hemp genetic resources. “These resources will be backed-up at the ARS National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation, regenerated, monitored, and maintained with best management practices, so that high quality germplasm can be distributed to researchers and breeders within the hemp community,” the website states. “Vulnerable or threatened genetic resources for hemp wild relatives and cultivars will be safeguarded so that these critical sources of genes for hemp research and breeding are widely available. In addition, new genetic resources for hemp that might be suitable for U.S agricultural systems will be introduced.”
In August, the USDA created a “high-throughput pollen collection device” that was developed to efficiently collect pollen. “Hemp is a new crop added to our seed bank in 2021 and we believe it has a lot of research potential,” said Tony Barraco in a USDA video about the device. “One objective we are exploring is the possibility of collection, long term storage, and distribution of pollen to stakeholders, like we distribute seeds.” The device was conceptualized by a former USDA post-doc Nick Genna and hemp curator Zachary Stansell, as well as hemp geneticist Tyler Gordon and technician Dan Meyers (the last three are also editors of the USDA Hemp Descriptor and Phenotyping Handbook).
The device is wearable like a backpack and includes a 100-micron mesh screen attached to a vacuum nozzle that can be carefully passed across live hemp plant material. Pollen is approximately 25 microns in size, so the vacuum can collect pollen without also collecting larger pieces of raw plant material.
The USDA continues to ramp up efforts regarding hemp, such as its “2023 Hemp Webinar Series” which includes eight videos published over the past few months.
Also last month, the USDA featured a father/son hemp cultivator team for the first time as part of its “Fridays on the Farm” spotlight column. The column covered the operations of their 200-acre hemp farm in Indiana, called Papa G’s Hemp Farm, and how the father once cultivated corn, soybeans, and hay on his property before his son convinced him to grow hemp.
In 2022, the USDA released a report that took a closer look at the growing value of the hemp industry, valuing it at approximately $824 million (considering data collected in 2021). The data was revised in a report released earlier this year, which stated that industrial hemp was only worth $238 million in value, with 2022 industrial hemp data consulted. It also shared that last year industrial hemp was cultivated on 28,314 acres, which was a 48% decrease from outdoor cultivation in 2021.
The benefits of hemp are widespread, from its versatile use as a food, textile, and agricultural good, but also as a source of pollen for pollinators. A recent study released in July explored hemp as a nutrition source for bees (primary sweat bees, but also honey bees and bumblebees as well). Researchers analyzed the chemical composition of four industrial hemp varieties (called Canda, CFX-2, Henola, and Joey). “Overall, the Joey variety was the most preferred by bees, despite expressing lower protein, amino acid, and saturated and monosaturated fatty acid content,” researchers concluded. “Based on our findings, we concluded that industrial hemp pollen provides some nutritional benefits to bees. However, it is important to understand that multiple sources of pollen are needed for sustained bee survival.”
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