Behind the OSU Global Hemp Innovation Center: An Interview with Dr. Jay Noller & Dr. Jeffery Steiner

Overhead View of the Oregon State University Campus in Corvallis, OR

The Oregon State University (OSU) College of Agricultural Sciences is home to the largest, most comprehensive Hemp research program in the nation known as the Global Hemp Innovation Center (GHIC). The university is dedicated to advancing the hemp industry and solving the significant global challenges presented by the growing demand for food, fiber, essential oils, and other products that hemp is capable of producing.

While the university has been engaged in hemp research for more than a century, it wasn’t until the turning of the proverbial page that was the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, that finally opened the door for the GHIC to be formally created. While the GHIC holds its stature today as a result of the body of work being done by the university’s more than 50 faculty across 20 disciplines and 7 colleges, it would not have been possible without the thought leadership and drive of the GHIC directors, Jay Noller and Jeffrey Steiner, and administrator Kristin Rifai.

Dr. Noller is the Director of the GHIC & Professor Emeritus of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Dr. Steiner is the Associate Director of the GHIC. Both of them have illustrious backgrounds in research and academia and are internationally known for their accomplishments across various disciplines. As a result of our continued collaboration with the GHIC, Vanguard has had the opportunity on numerous occasions to engage both Dr. Noller and Dr. Steiner in rich and insightful discussions around the ongoing research efforts of the GHIC and the future of the hemp industry as a whole. As a result of these conversations, we requested the opportunity to have one of our very own OSU alumni and current Vanguard R&D Engineer, Shane Sehgal, sit down with both Dr. Noller and Dr. Steiner for an in-depth discussion around their unique experiences, expertise, and the origins of the GHIC.

Shane Sehgal

Shane: To offer some context, I'd love to get to each of your backgrounds before you went ahead and joined the GHIC, as well as what led each of you to the positions where you are now.

Dr. Jay Noller

Dr. Noller: I joined the OSU Department of Crop and Soil Science in 2000, with research on soil geomorphology in various parts of the world, particularly focused on archaeological studies of early agrarian societies – seeking answers to when and how humans figured out farming. I became Head in 2014, administering to a diverse assemblage of research, teaching and extension in natural resources, many commodities, conventional and organic agriculture, large and small farms. This was just before the 2014 Farm Bill passage and I saw the need to set up research framework around a new-old crop that missed the last 80 years of science and technological advancement. Rather than impose this new, academically risky crop on others, I took it on as my new policy pursuit that expanded into a research pursuit.

I currently represent Oregon State University on all matters that are hemp related, and I've enjoyed doing that since late 2014. I am Oregon's research leader on all things hemp. Starting in 2015, I linked up with dozens of universities and institutions in Europe and started growing hemp in 2015 in Serbia. That was effectively the launching of OSU’s hands-on hemp research program which had to take place overseas because of problems with getting seeds into the state for the university to actually grow. In addition to that, I began participation in field research on hemp in China in 2018, so we've expanded there and into several other countries, and continue to do that in different states. So, my role is to look at hemp from the standpoint of not only what's best for Oregon, but also what's best for the nation. And then, of course, last but not certainly least, global trade and market classes product specifications. For the past two years, I've also been working directly with states and the US government on the hemp importation and exportation processes for hemp products, which are slowly becoming available now.

Dr. Jeffery Steiner

Dr. Steiner: My previous position was a Division Director for Plant Production at the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Washington DC. I had a staff that led the extramural grant programs that address all aspects of crop production like genetics, genomics of plant physiology, plant products, cropping systems, and so forth. As hemp was recognized as a legal crop, I served as the technical lead for hemp and worked with USDA administration to establish policies allowing financial support of hemp research, education, and extension activities. This allowed hemp to be considered for funding like any other commodity. It was at NIFA that I met many of the hemp researchers around the country while serving at the USDA advisor to the first nation-wide Hatch multistate hemp research project and also assisted the USDA Office of the Chief Scientist in organizing the first nation-wide symposium to brief USDA employees on the status of hemp science.

My wife and I raised our family in Oregon, and decided that it was time to move home, so we came back to Oregon and I began my work with the GHIC. But prior to that I had spent 25 years with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, both here in Oregon, as well as in the Washington DC area. My background as an agricultural systems researcher and administrator helps me have a broad perspective on agriculture around the country and how a new crop like hemp can fit in.

Shane: It's pretty clear that Oregon State has a very rich, deep history with hemp research. What was it like when the 2018 Farm Bill passed? Did it kind of just open this up for the university to have more opportunities working with Hemp? What was the climate like around the university? Was there a lot of excitement?

Dr. Noller: There was excitement to some degree, but also not a whole lot mainly because of the fear factor – hemp was just decriminalized at federal level and yet the US government hadn’t yet embodied that. A large part of the OSU budget is funded by the federal government. We had to deal with numerous hurdles to getting the program off the ground. The first of which was that typically a University has a certain mindset of “these are things we've always done” and innovation is something that isn't necessarily always thought of as an academic exercise. We typically teach from books. So, we had to break out of that mindset and stop focusing on a backward-looking approach, and instead change the framework to looking forward to innovating. So, that was our first hurdle to overcome.

At the time we had also just gotten a new dean, so we had to present our case on just how important this was, could be, and would be for the college. We had to take the approach of convincing not only the new dean but many others around the program that this isn't any sort of crop that's a new fad, that hemp will keep going. So, the university had to really take a deep dive, to do the pilot studies to really understand that we didn't have a government that was looking forward to needing to change things in house and then also fund that because the market could out-run us. We had to overcome that as well to even get the program to a place where we could get it off the ground.

And then the final hurdle was that even after the 2018 Farm Bill passed, we had an in-house general counsel assigned to us and they were very hesitant because they really didn't like the legal risks of cannabis at all, so that was a barrier we didn't need. Luckily, I figured out how to get around them, and we were able to get outside counsel to advise us and once that happened it w