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Student will grow hemp to see if it's a 'viable cash crop' for Utah

051719 Jeff Colbert 01.jpg
Jeff Colbert is a senior at Weber State University studying botany. He is currently researching the agricultural potential of growing hemp in Utah. The cannabis variety does not have the psychoactive properties of recreational marijuana and is instead grown for the fibers that can be used to make fabric, paper and other materials.

A senior botany student at Weber State University is hoping to answer one question through his undergraduate research this summer: Could hemp be a viable cash crop for Utah?

Jeff Colbert of Bountiful plans to grow hemp plants from seeds using different soil samples to see if the crop could grow in Utah, according to a press release.

Hemp can grow 15 to 20 feet tall. It's fibrous--unlike medical and recreational cannabis plants--which tend to be short and bushy and are cultivated for oil. Hemp contains almost no Tetrahydrocannabinol: the chemical compound associated with the medicinal and psychoactive effects of marijuana.

Colbert got a state license to grow the hemp for his project.

“Throughout the three-month growing cycle, the plants will be subject to surprise visits from the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food,” Colbert stated in a press release. “If the plants have more than 0.3% THC, they will be destroyed.”

Colbert's been hoping to do something like this for almost 25 years. It seemed highly unlikely until the federal government passed the Farm Bill in 2018, granting states the right to regulate the growth of hemp.

“I’ve always liked plants. I’ve always liked botany,” Colbert stated in a press release.

As a pre-teen, Colbert grew a garden in his parent's West Valley City yard. He experiments with what needed to be added to the soil, including things from pigeon waste to gypsum to sheetrock.

“The pumpkins really liked the pigeon poo,” Colbert said.

After graduating from high school, Colbert continued working in gardens. He performed manual labor and made deliveries for a greenhouse near his family's home. He even visited a bonsai garden with a woman while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Japan.

“She showed me trees that were 150 years old, 2 to 3 feet tall with these giant trunks. I spent part of a day cleaning the roots,” Colbert said in a press release.

When he returned from his mission, he continued to work at the local greenhouse.

“Back then, I recall a friend’s father was taking cannabis to relieve chronic back pain,” Colbert said. “I started thinking, if it does that, what else can it do?”

The thought prompted him to contact a university in Utah and ask about growing cannabis to research its properties. Colbert says the person laughed at him, thinking he was a kid who just wanted to get high.

After a nearly 20 year career in law enforcement, he started taking botany classes at Weber State University.

“In law enforcement, no is no,” Colbert said. “I didn’t see that in the university. It was more of a yield sign. Let’s slow down, make sure everything is clear.”

For this project, Colbert plans to grow 48 plants with three redundancies. The plants will be grown in three different soil samples taken from the old Bonneville shoreline east of Skull Valley.

Depending on how well the plants grow, that will indicate which soil is most conducive with hemp.

“I really hope that our plants don't get destroyed by bugs or pathogens, that no one accidentally or willfully destroys the research and that we'll get valuable findings for Jeff and Utah,” said assistant professor of botany Katharina Schramm, crediting Colbert’s resiliency as key to the research going forward.

“I hope people see that I was willing to fight through roadblocks and that I was tenacious,” Colbert said. “If hemp is a viable cash crop, I’d love to see Utah’s economy bolstered.”

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