Traveling from east to west, Nebraska experiences a 4,584 foot elevation change, in which rainfall decreases one inch by every 25 miles. The dramatic change in rainfall and elevation from east to west—along with a variety of soil types, ecosystems and growing conditions across the state—make the state an ideal laboratory for a land-grant agricultural research institution like the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. These variables also make Nebraska a natural test bed for experimenting with nontraditional crops.
Researchers within the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources are working to understand how nontraditional crops such as hops, hemp and hazelnuts may provide new opportunities for Nebraska producers to diversify their operations.
Traditionally, hops production has been mainly focused in the Pacific Northwest, but a few Nebraska producers have begun to grow them, too, harvesting a total of 46.5 acres of hops in 2019.
Mainly used for making beer, hops production is meeting the demand of Nebraska's growing craft beer industry. Keenan Amundsen, a turfgrass geneticist in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, has worked with Nebraska producers interested in growing hops, helping optimize commercially available seed varieties for Nebraska growing conditions.
Hops have piqued the interest of a number of producers looking to diversify their operations, Amundsen said.
Among those producers are Dave and Lisa Gleason of Kearney. After about a year of research, the Gleasons dove into production and reached out to Nebraska Extension for assistance in planting, building a trellis and watering system and more. In 2020, Oak Creek Hops marked its fourth year in production, and has successfully marketed their hops to local brewers. The Gleasons travel to breweries across the state building relationships with brewers, learning about their craft and putting hops directly into their hands.
"You really have to build a partnership with the brewers and earn their trust so that you can provide them a high-quality product on a regular basis," Dave Gleason said.
University of Nebraska–Lincoln professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture Ismail Dweikat, says hemp has been a major crop globally for centuries and can be produced for fiber, grain, cannabidiol (CDB) and more. Hemp is differentiated from marijuana by its lower levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
In 2019, only 10 Nebraska operations were issued a license agreement from the United States Department of Agriculture after applying for cultivation for research purposes only. Dweikat, who has been researching hemp production in small plots for three crop seasons, works to identify suitable varieties and production strategies of hemp for Nebraska at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center.
Hemp production is new in Nebraska, but Dweikat says the crop shows promise.
"Nebraska has an ideal climate for hemp production with its deep and light soil, moisture, sunlight and water availability," he said.
Hemp is a multi-use crop that can help supplement crop rotation while benefitting the soil and suppressing weeds. Nebraska also has an abundance of wild hemp, especially in the eastern part of the state, which can contaminate a crop being grown for CBD. Hemp is rich in oil and can be used for hand cream, soap, oils, clothing, and for many other uses. It also shows promise for use in bio-fuel development.
"Five years ago, I realized that hemp is going to be a major crop because of so many uses," Dweikat said.
That said, hemp production faces its share of challenges. It can be difficult to keep THC levels under the legally-allowed limit, because insects, drought and disease can all push the levels higher. Producers in Nebraska and elsewhere also face a lack of market, harvesting machinery, storage facilities and processing plants.
The Nebraska Forest Service at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln is a member of the Hybrid Hazelnut Research Consortium, which also includes Oregon State University, Rutgers University and the Arbor Day Foundation. Aaron Clare, forest properties manager, oversees the research program and hybrid hazelnut test plot at the Nebraska Forest Service's Horning State Farm Demonstration Facility near Plattsmouth.
"The goal of the program is to develop cultivated hazelnuts as a perennial crop in to be grown in the Midwest and Great Plains for use as food, animal feed and biofuel," Clare said.
The Hybrid Hazelnut Research Consortium works to hybridize between the European and American hazelnuts to breed disease-resistant, large-nut varieties with thin shells and open husks that fall from the tree and climatically adapted cultivar.
Nebraska researchers identified and thoroughly tested the Grand Traverse cultivar, which could prove to be a high-value dryland crop. Hazelnut trees can also provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators, while building and increasing soil matter and sequester more carbon than annual crops due to their extensive perennial root systems.
The nutrient-dense plant is a rich source of protein, vitamin E, folate, B vitamins and arginine. Nebraska researchers have previously studied hazelnut oil for food and biofuel applications, showing that hazelnuts can produce nearly twice the amount of oil per acre as soybeans.
Looking toward the future of hazelnut production in Nebraska, Clare looks to expanded testing of plant material that researchers have, and developing more to utilize on marginal lands for production and increasing planting acres.