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North Carolina Agronomist Sees Big Future for Hemp on the East Coast

David Suchoff
David Suchoff, alternative crops extension specialist and assistant professor at NC State.

Hemp Business

North Carolina Agronomist Sees Big Future for Hemp on the East Coast

David Suchoff, alternative crops extension specialist and assistant professor at North Carolina State University, has been working on growing trials for fiber to rebuild the textile supply chain in the state. He spoke to Let’s Talk Hemp from Raleigh, North Carolina.

How did your career lead you to hemp? 
I have a master’s and a Ph.D. from NC State in horticulture, though the crop I worked with was tomatoes. Prior to this job, I had a position in the university’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences working with organic commodities such as tobacco, sweet potato and various grains. 

Before that, I served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay for two years as a sustainable farming systems extension agent and did a third year doing similar work in Costa Rica. So I have a mixed bag of experiences all related to agriculture. 

My position at NC State is a new one that was created in 2019 because there was a lot of interest from farmers in alternative row crops, hemp being one of them. They were approaching faculty who were doing research on related crops and asking for help. The need became so big that the college realized it needed a dedicated position for research and extension services focused on these alternative crops.

I can work with any new and emerging row crop, which involves a mechanized farming system on fields of 20 acres or more. Corn, wheat, soybean — crops that they fit in rotation. 

As an agronomist I am looking at whether a crop is feasible to grow here in North Carolina and how to produce it in an efficient, sustainable and profitable way. We conduct applied field research that results in recommendations for farmers so they can be as successful as possible with these new and emerging crops. 

What is your role at NC State?
My program is research and extension. We do applied field research trials all across North Carolina. When we are not doing research, I drive around to county extension offices to translate the research results into actionable recommendations for farmers and to train extension agents about hemp and other alternative crops. We work to develop materials as a means to broadcast and get information out to farmers.

I have a pretty large group of master’s and Ph.D. students as well as undergraduate interns. We take on grad students through grant and industry funding for projects which then become part of their thesis or presentations. They are the boots on the ground deploying studies, collecting data, interpreting results and helping get the information out. 

I do guest lectures, but I do not have teaching responsibilities. 

Farmers interact with county extension office agents, who are state employees there to get farmers involved and help them be successful and profitable. These agents are an extension of the university. I can’t meet with every farmer, but I can meet with the extension agents who go out and train the farmers when we can’t. I answer calls every day from farmers who are interested or trying to grow hemp and have an issue that we can help with. Farmers also work with us on research questions – for example, which variety does best in this region? – and we will deploy a research trial on the farm.

During the winter months we do county meetings and updates on what we know so far, and in summer we open the field station and people can come see it. These activities help build networks and move the industry forward.

Tell us about the consortium that you are part of
The Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR) Hemp Research Consortium launched in March 2022. It is a public/private partnership which includes NC State, Cornell and the University of Kentucky, along with 10 industry members who range from breeding to technology to processors and end-use manufacturers. The goal is to conduct highly collaborative research and to leverage the resources across all the academic and industry partners to face the larger issues in the hemp industry.

When I started, we were doing almost all our work with floral hemp. That industry has collapsed. We now have so few people in North Carolina growing floral hemp that we have shifted to fiber hemp for bast production, for use in woven and nonwoven textiles. We are looking at sustainable fertility recommendations, sustainable weed management, harvest timing, retting efficiency, double cropping — we have 12 to 14 trials out there. This year, all our trials are taking place at the university/NCDA research stations around the state. 

What is the top priority for building the U.S. supply chain for hemp fiber in textiles?
Right now we need a lot more processors. We always talk about the chicken and egg with fiber hemp. People want to incorporate it in products, but nobody is growing it. Farmers will say we’d love to grow it, but we don’t see processing. In North Carolina we do have decorticators and degummers, so we have the steps to get to a sustainable product. We also have a historic and robust textile industry that could expand the use of fiber hemp. 

The cost of production is too high due to seed costs and availability. A lot are coming from China, because that is what works in the Southeast. We need a larger, more readily available supply of domestic seeds and cultural practices to get the best yield of both biomass and quality.

What is limiting folks is the need for processing infrastructure and having it close. The industry is not going to work until there is a lot of regional processing, because once you put that big, bulky material on a truck, you are eating away at the margins, which are already thin. It needs to be like the cotton infrastructure, where gins are close and regionally accessible. 

What are your goals for the rest of 2023? 
To survive. I joke. We are literally in the middle of planting these trials. We have a very busy field season collecting data. These are multi-year trials to get an understanding of the systems. We are going to be very, very, very busy this summer through to the fall. We are going to get a good idea of fertility, but it takes a few years.

Through field days and other extension activities, I want to engage as many people as possible and get networks and partnerships and communities developed. When you look at corn, soybeans and sweet potatoes, these crops have established networks of growers and extension agents. Part of what we do is facilitate the development of these networks. 

Fiber hemp is a really interesting and unique crop that has a lot of potential benefits. Although hemp has been grown before in the U.S., it was not for a long period of time, so there are a lot of unknowns to incorporate it back into production systems. In some ways it’s starting from scratch, this time with sustainability at the forefront. 

The mention of companies and other enterprises in news stories and Q&As does not imply an endorsement by Let’s Talk Hemp or any business relationship.

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