After Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts signed the Nebraska Hemp Farming Act (LB657) into law in May of 2019, Doane University wasted no time creating courses to educate Nebraska farmers on the cannabis industry, one that is projected to become a multi-billion dollar industry by 2023.
In August of 2019, Doane began offering a Professional Cannabis Certificate Program on DoaneX, becoming the first college or university in Nebraska to offer a series of cannabis courses. Since then, Doane University has expanded its cannabis course offerings while also naming Dr. Andrea Holmes, a nationally-known expert in the cannabis field, as Director of Cannabis Studies.
Doane continues to be a leader in cannabis education for Nebraskans and others around the nation and recent research conducted by Doane faculty members and students is more proof of that.
Last year Doane faculty members Dr. Blake Colclasure, Dr. Tessa Durham Brooks, and Dr. Andrea Holmes, in collaboration with UNL faculty member Dr. Taylor Ruth, conducted a research project on Doane students’ knowledge, attitudes, and use of hemp products. After Gov. Ricketts signed LB657 into law, recognizing hemp as a viable agricultural crop, Doane faculty were curious to know how much students truly knew about hemp.
“Hemp looks similar to marijuana but the main difference is the THC content,” Dr. Colclasure explained. “Hemp contains 0.3 percent or less THC on a dry weight basis. Some science faculty members were brainstorming what we could do to make sure our students properly understood what we were doing and address any misinformation out there.
“I think there’s a lot of stigma on hemp -- that hemp is marijuana and you can smoke hemp to get high, which isn’t true. From a security standpoint and interest standpoint, we wanted to educate our students about the difference between hemp and marijuana.”
Before hemp plants were brought into the university for research, Dr. Colclasure, Dr. Durham Brooks, and Dr. Holmes organized an educational campaign with the faculty and students at Doane. At the beginning, they measured students’ attitudes and knowledge of hemp and their use of hemp products. Educational posters were on display outside the greenhouse as well. After three to four weeks, they reassessed students’ knowledge and attitudes of hemp.
“Prior to delivering our educational campaign, we found that nearly half of the students believed that hemp could be smoked to get high,” Dr. Colclasure said. “Also, around half of our students didn’t know hemp was a legal crop in Nebraska and the United States. But interestingly enough, their attitude toward hemp was relatively positive.”
Dr. Colclasure, Dr. Durham Brooks, Dr. Holmes, and Dr. Ruth wrote a manuscript on their research, titled, “Hemp, Hemp, Hooray: The Impact of a Hemp Educational Campaign on College Students’ Attitudes and Knowledge of Industrial Hemp.” The manuscript received a Distinguished Manuscript award (top 5 of 113 submissions, based on peer review) at the 2020 National Association for Agricultural Education Conference and was also accepted for publication in the Journal of Agricultural Education. Their second manuscript, “Hemp on the Horizon: Understanding Influences on Industrial Hemp Purchases,” also received a Distinguished Research Paper Award at the 2020 North-Central American Association for Agricultural Education Conference.
“When we presented the research at various conferences, most of the other universities presenting were large, land grant universities, so for Doane to receive this recognition is great,” Dr. Colclasure said. “It helps our agricultural programs and shows that Doane is actively involved in the agricultural industry.”
After conducting this research focused on the student population, Dr. Colclasure began to wonder -- how much do the farmers in Nebraska, who recently became the first in the state to grow hemp, truly know about the crop and where do they go to get their information?
Dr. Colclasure reached out to Doane Environmental Science majors Christine Rost ’21 and Bailey Gasseling ’21 to see if they would be interested in conducting research, this time targeted at farmers, to not only understand their knowledge and perceptions of hemp, but also to hear what their experiences were like as first-year hemp cultivators in Nebraska. Rost had gathered and organized the data for the research Dr. Colclasure, Dr. Durham Brooks, and Dr. Holmes organized and was interested in learning more.
Rost and Gasseling applied for a summer research grant, which was ultimately accepted. Prior to the pandemic, the two had planned to conduct their research in person, travelling to different communities across Nebraska to interview first-year hemp cultivators in person. Because of COVID-19, the interviews conducted were done virtually.
Rost and Gasseling were able to conduct in-depth interviews with 14 first-year hemp cultivators. The two used the Diffusion of Innovations Theory to assess characteristics of Nebraska’s hemp innovators (also known as the first 2.5% of a population to adopt a new technology, or in this case, crop). By mid-summer of 2020, there were approximately 85 licensed cultivators for hemp in Nebraska, a surprisingly low number to Dr. Colclasure. Serving as the faculty advisor for this research, Dr. Colclasure encouraged Rost and Gasseling to explore where the farmers got their motives to grow hemp, the challenges they faced, and ask if they planned to continue growing hemp in the future.
“Overall the farmers were very supportive of the research,” Colclasure said. “They said they had not been asked much about the challenges they were facing and said they had difficulty finding credible resources for problems they encountered during the growing season.”
“The lack of information out there for farmers to access was the biggest hurdle for them,” Gasseling said. “There are not many conventional pesticides approved by the EPA and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture for hemp crops, so that was also something that presented challenges for them. They experienced a lot of trial and error.”
Earlier this month, Rost and Gasseling presented their research at the National Council for Science and the Environment 2021 Conference, held virtually due to COVID-19. The two said they made some great connections and the experience was very valuable for them. While they were disappointed they didn’t have the opportunity to present in-person, the conference moving to a virtual format allowed for more people to attend.
“It was a big deal to be able to present at the conference,” Rost said. “Especially during COVID, it was a big win for me. I think the conference truly had a global impact and that’s something I never thought I would be able to achieve at the undergraduate level. There was a student from India asking us about our research and there was another student asking if they could use our research at George Mason University.”
“Hemp is a really hot topic in the ag community and in order for it to be successful, we need this type of research,” Colclasure added. “We have to see what challenges farmers are running into and we have to be able to provide this information to growers and the wider community. I think it brings awareness to what we do at Doane and how we’re doing research that can benefit our stakeholders and Nebraska’s economy because so much of it is ag based.”
This semester, Rost and Gasseling are planning to write a manuscript on their research, with the hope of it being published. This experience has sparked an interest in graduate school for Rost, who says she would like to study ag communication. Gasseling has aspirations of becoming a private agronomist after graduation and says the knowledge she’s obtained in hemp cultivation will help her tremendously.
Rost and Gasseling’s research presentation can be found online here.