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Janna Beckerman (left) and Ron Turco examine a test plot of hemp. Photo provided by Purdue Agricultural Communication.

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Botany and Plant Pathology

Researcher's investigations aim to save specialty growers' money

Janna Beckerman heard rumors that Cannabis sativa L., or hemp, was a disease-resistant crop. Beckerman, a plant pathologist, is used to seeing crop losses from disease. She wanted to know if the rumors about hemp were true.

"It was a mistake," said Beckerman, a professor of Botany and Plant Pathology. "Hemp gets a lot of diseases. It had just as many problems as soybeans, certainly more problems than corn."

In both the field and the lab, Beckerman helps Indiana growers protect their specialty crops — including fruit, nursery and greenhouse crops, landscaping plants, and now hemp. She also is one of four creators of the Purdue Hemp Project, which is dedicated to researching the possibility of growing hemp as an industrial crop in the Midwest. Despite hemp's susceptibility to disease, Beckerman said she is undeterred and likes a challenge.

"I like all the moving parts and complexity of trying to mitigate what could be catastrophic impacts," Beckerman said.

Beckerman knows that specialty crops are prone to more issues than row crops like corn and soybean, but hemp comes with its own unique complications. Hemp is still illegal to grow or possess in Indiana, which means the members of the Hemp Project team had to take extra steps to keep their research documented with the Drug Enforcement Agency.

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Janna Beckerman provides expertise to those who grow specialty crops like bedding plants, landscaping plants, and fruit. She is part of a team investigating the use of hemp as an industrial crop. Photo by Mia Brann.
"Keeping things legal has been a challenge. Doing research often is very challenging, too," Beckerman said. "Things don't go according to plan, and there are so many things that can go wrong that this just adds a layer of challenge. It can be frustrating to deal with the extra hoops in front of us. On the plus side, working with the Indiana State Police has been an excellent experience for all of us."

Despite the barriers, there are many who think hemp could be a miracle crop that can create everything from strong, cheap fibers to animal feed and fuel. Beckerman remains rational and realistic about hemp's possibilities as a crop in her work to get in front of any potential problems.

"If hemp were legalized, I think it would become a small crop," she said. "When something has the potential to bring in a lot of money, particularly if that's done easily, you see a lot of people go into that market and then the prices drop.

I do think there certainly will be the potential for some people. I think there's also a potential for people to lose a lot of money too."

A market for hemp already exists in Indiana. FlexForm Technologies, in Elkhart, Indiana, is a company that uses imported hemp to manufacture bioplastic components for industrial products like car doors and packaging. Hemp is strong and light, which could improve fuel efficiency and reduce carbon emissions from vehicles. Although farmers see the lucrative market that hemp could create, it is Beckerman's job as a scientist to ensure that hemp can be grown economically and successfully.

"I've seen too many people lose too much money on other crops," Beckerman said. "It seems to me that people's enthusiasm is inversely correlated with their knowledge of the crop they are growing, be it hemp, ginseng, or even fruit and vegetable production. I usually get contacted after the problem has happened, and I was hoping to be proactive in the case of hemp."


By Mia Brann Plant Science, freshman



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