Just as the New Farm Bill Legalizes Industrial Hemp, AREC Student Begins Research on Hemp Production as a New SURE Program Fellow

Research to examine the feasibility of industrial hemp as a new enterprise for Maryland farmers

Image Credit: Maja Dumat, creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0

February 4, 2019 Samantha Watters

With the new semester starting and the most recent Farm Bill passing in December and legalizing industrial hemp, some exciting prospects for agriculture and the students who study it are on the rise. Elizabeth Thilmany of Agricultural & Resource Economics was already ahead of the curve, recently named a fellow of the Snider Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Program through the Smith School of Business with a focus on innovative enterprises and a proposed research project examining perspectives and viability of growing industrial hemp in Maryland.

This idea was already planted in Thilmany’s mind before the Farm Bill passed, but the bill opens the door for more extensive and detailed work to be done. “I see my research as being kind of a timely piece that shows the framework of what industrial hemp could mean, and I like the idea of recording different perspectives because it impacts farmers, consumers, and researchers and how they get this industry out of the 50 plus years of recess we are in,” says Thilmany.

Thilmany, a Colorado native, has been using Colorado as a model to do preliminary research for this topic, since they have had legalized hemp research since 2014. Classifications of hemp have been confusing in these areas with state and federal legality clashing. “There has been a lot of confusion around where hemp fits in to try and catch up on what’s going on,” says Thilmany.

But if the systems can catch up, the potential for industrial hemp as a crop is very widespread and lucrative. Hemp is heralded for nutritional benefits in the seeds, other health benefits in cosmetics and bath products, and even as a producer of paper and fabrics as an alternative and potentially more environmentally friendly crop than cotton. “There’s not any supply chain built into the system currently, so it’ll be very interesting to see the timeframe and process to get the plant, grow and harvest it, and then establish a system for processing,” explains Thilmany. “Fabric, paper, nutritional products all have different processing and supply chains. It will be important to look to international industries as well like Canada who already has a legal hemp system in place.”

Paul Goeringer, legal and senior faculty specialist in Agricultural & Resource Economics, is Thilmany’s faculty advisor on the project, and he agrees that this is work that needs to be done. “We are both excited about this project. The work is timely and interesting, and there isn’t a lot out there in terms of industrial hemp research. Legally and agriculturally, there is a lot to untangle, but a lot to be gained.” Thilmany adds, “We are a country founded on farmers, so taking care of farmers and making sure they still have ways to make money and keep their livelihoods is very important.”

Personally, Thilmany grew up around agricultural economists, with her mother working for Colorado State as an economist under Dean Craig Beyrouty, now Thilmany’s current dean in the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources at UMD. But, her drive ultimately came from reading the book Freakonomics in middle school. “I loved the thought process of using scientific method and math, but looking at more social problems and policy concerns,” says Thilmany. She was particularly attracted to resource economics as a “really innovative way of finding environmental benefits through economically smart decisions,” adds Thilmany.

She is excited to be a part of the SURE Program with the business school, now a double major in Agricultural & Resource Economics and Supply Chain Management, minoring in Statistics. She was one of just a few sophomores accepted to the program, and would have actually taken part as a freshman had she not faced an unexpected struggle with cancer. But she is proudly in remission now and back to her usual activities, serving as a resident assistant (RA) for Easton Hall, playing bass in the UMD Repertoire Orchestra, organizing events with the Food Recovery Network recovering discarded food at campus dining halls for the hungry, and even serving on the dean’s advisory council. “I really feel like the Ag college is my home,” says Thilmany.

Through her battle with cancer, she blogged her experience and stayed very active and engaged, learning a lot. “Sometimes I was overplanning too much,” says Thilmany. “I came into undergrad thinking about grad school, which I now realize is a ridiculous expectation to put on myself. It is now often the status quo to feel like you need to know what you are going to do with your degree the second you walk into the university, but I realized that as long as you take appropriate classes and do well in whatever you try, the path will kind of be shown to you. I’m more willing to let my future not be 100% known and let opportunities unfold as they may. Follow your passions, internships you like, anything that moves you.”

Right now, she is moved by her past experiences and the future prospects of the agricultural industry and environmental stewardship to study hemp production. She will be presenting her findings as part of the SURE Program at the end of the semester in May, and she is excited to see what the future holds.