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NoCo9 Speaker Spotlight Series: Jane Kolodinsky of the University of Vermont

Jane Kolodinsky

Hemp Business

NoCo9 Speaker Spotlight Series: Jane Kolodinsky of the University of Vermont

Jane Kolodinsky, professor and chair in the Community Development and Applied Economics Department & director of the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont, spoke with Let’s Talk Hemp from Burlington, Vermont.

How did you become interested in hemp and how did your background get you here?
I am an oldster when it comes to hemp! Early in my career, in the late ‘90s, the state of Vermont was investigating industrial hemp. At that time we did a study on consumer demand and I presented in Germany and Poland. It turns out there is a large institute in Poznań, Poland — now called the Institute of Natural Fibers and Medicinal Plants — that has included hemp in their research since 1945.

We did a study on what kind of hemp products might be of interest to everyday consumers. We looked at privately and publicly consumed luxury and necessity products. For example, a privately consumed luxury might be hemp batting in an airplane between the interior plastic and the outer frame. Publicly consumed luxury would be some of these amazing fabrics coming out of Italy and Eastern Europe. Hemp and other bast fibers in Poland were huge at the time.

In my home state of Vermont back in the ‘90s the people were amenable to hemp, but the legislature said, “We will not do it because it’s cannabis.” The confusion with the drug has caused a lot of issues, even through to today.

Fast forward to around 2017 – hemp came up as a research topic in USDA calls for research proposals. The government was funding hemp research. We thought, “Let’s come around and look at this again.” We were funded! We have one of the first, if not the first, consumer product surveys that is nationally representative. We asked questions about 10 product categories ranging from CBD and CBG all the way to clothing, personal care. We asked about consumer familiarity with hemp, whether respondents use it and what respondent attitudes are toward these product categories.

Tell us about your experience with hemp at the University of Vermont
It has been a long and winding road. Right now we have several hemp research groups that are national in scope. We secured a USDA foundational grant to revitalize rural communities and have teamed up with academic groups in Colorado and Kentucky. We are looking at the economic impact of hemp on rural economies. We trace hemp’s value chain journey and see what the economic multiplier is. For example (only an example), if you spend a dollar in the supply chain of a product — farming, producing, distributing — the economy gets $1.60 back. A lot of people are waiting for this number on hemp, and we are excited to formalize and release our results.

We also have a very small seed grant, from the Gund Institute for Environment at UVM, which allows us to look at supermarket scanner data. That is where my food research comes in. We have billions of data points from 2012-2020 thanks to cooperation with the U.S. Economic Research Service. This is revealed preference – what people have actually demanded in the marketplace.

We are also seeking to learn the stated preference of consumers about hemp. That is, what is their willingness to spend on hemp products when the products are aligned with a value such as sustainability? What are they looking for? Comfort, durability, do they want to see an eco-friendly label on it, etc. We have pilot data, again funded by the Gund center and the University of Alberta and a Fulbright award I received.

Our preliminary results show that consumers are really interested in the sustainability components of hemp and would like to see that on a label. And on the same hand — not even on the other hand — the connection between marijuana drugs and hemp is a conflict. So we have to find the sweet spot. A huge portion of the population will not consider anything hemp because of the long-term association with psychoactive ingredients.

What are your professional goals for 2023?
I want to continue to build a strong research group of people who include both quantitative and qualitative methods in their study of the hemp value chain. I want to further the knowledge on how hemp can find a place in the economy and how it can be profitable for the whole value chain. How will we position hemp to inform consumers and bring them away from this association with drugs? We need to reinforce the association with sustainability. 

We currently have colleagues from the University of Kentucky, Colorado State University, the University of Vermont, the University of Alberta and from the Economic Research Service of USDA. It is really exciting to be working with some of the best minds in the country when it comes to the hemp value chain. I learn something new every time we meet, and I hope I have something to offer others. We believe in a transdisciplinary approach.

Hemp really does have an opportunity to revitalize rural America. We have seen rural communities gutted as their economic bases eroded. Yet there is a lot of positivity to living in small places. We want to provide information that helps them revitalize.

What will you be talking about at NoCo9?
I will be presenting our evidence-based research and quantitatively valid results. We have some evidence of what is going on in the marketplace and I am excited to share it. I’m an economist, so the idea we can really bring life back to places where the previous industry has declined is motivating. What is Plan B for rural communities that have agricultural roots?

Anything else you are excited about with regard to hemp policy or research?
What I am most excited about is to look at the trajectory of hemp that makes it come full circle in the economy. It was once a very essential crop in the U.S. There are huge possibilities for dual crop hemp: grain in terms of food and sustainable fibers. So many products can be replaced by hemp in a circular economy. I am excited about the whole plant.

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