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UMES awarded NIFA grant aimed at helping hemp growers combat pests, diseases, and weeds

The University of Maryland Eastern Shore, in partnership with the University of Maryland College Park and Alabama State University, aims to help industrial hemp growers in Delmarva manage pests, plant diseases, and weeds through a new capacity-building grant funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Dr. Simon Zebelo an associate professor of entomology and plant biology at UMES, serves as the principal director for the $600,000 three-year award. 

In addition to helping agricultural producers, the grant will also educate the next generation of agricultural entrepreneurs through the development of an introductory course on hemp production and management and train two graduate and three undergraduate student interns. 

For nearly a decade, hemp and marijuana were illegal in most states until the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, which removed hemp with less than 0.3 percent delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (D9THC) from the controlled substance list, Zebelo said.  

“Now that hemp is a legal agricultural commodity, a need exists for research and extension activities on pest and weed management that make growing hemp challenging,” Zebelo, who is also the director of UMES’ Center for Integrated Pest Management and the IR-4 Project Northeast Region Director, said. 

As team lead, Zebelo will direct co-principal directors: Drs. Behnam Khatabi, Sadanand Dhekney, and Tigist Tolosa of UMES’ Department of Agriculture, Food and Resource Sciences; Dwayne Joseph, Cerruti Hooks, and Kurt Vollmer, all of the University of Maryland College Park; and Olufemi Ajayi of Alabama State University on the activities and goals of the project.  

Corn earworm (CEW) moths will be caught using different trap types, and a correlation will be done with the presence of larvae in the hemp fields to study the density of the pest, Zebelo said. An assessment will be made of the host preferences of the key insect pests associated with different varieties of hemp. In addition, the research will look at the feeding and oviposition site selection. 

“We will evaluate the efficacy of currently registered biological insecticides for the management of arthropod pests and diseases in hemp along with examining the effect of CEW damage and that of other arthropods on the level of terpenoids, cannabidiol (CBD) and D9THC content,” Zebelo explained. The team, he said, will also look at the effects of minimum tillage and cover cropping on weed and insect pests, natural enemy efficacy, and industrial hemp yield. 

Information from the study will be shared with farmers and stakeholders through various extension activities, as is customary with a standard integrated project, Zebelo said. University students will also reap the benefits of the research by way of an introductory course and research experiences. 

“Developing and Implementing Insect Pest, Diseases and Weed Monitoring and Managing Tactics on Hemp Production In The Delmarva Region” is funded by USDA-NIFA grant number 2022-38821-37354.  

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