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Oregon State University will leverage a $10 million grant through the Department of Agriculture to help tribes explore industrial hemp opportunities.

The university’s five-year old Global Hemp Innovation Center (GHIC) will utilize its existing partnerships with Indigenous-led organizations — including Trinidad, Calif.-based Indigenous Habitat Institute and Seattle-based 7 Generations, LLC — to help tribes understand the industrial hemp sector, according to Dr. Jeffery Steiner, director of the GHIC. 

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The organizations plan to help tribes create educational and workforce-training programs for tribal members, while also identifying points of entry that make the most sense for individual tribes. GHIC aims to serve as a combination of business development and engineering consultant, workforce development specialist, and curriculum writer through the grant funding, providing those services to tribes for free, Steiner told Tribal Business News. 

“We’ve got this tiger by the tail and we’re starting to ramp things up,” Steiner said. “We’ve talked with tribes about what they need, and now we’re developing this from the bottom-up. We’re not coming in with any formula, but rather this palette of options and opportunities, and we’re going to let the tribes look at those and decide what's important to them, and how they want to implement these things.”

The grant will allow GHIC and partner organizations to provide their services to a “consortium” of 13 tribes, though the list of those tribes isn’t ready for publication at time of writing, Steiner said. He hopes to help the consortium navigate re-entering a market that rose rapidly in the wake of hemp legalization in many states and then crashed again as supply quickly outstripped demand. 

In 2019 and 2020, hemp acreage in Oregon rose astronomically, cresting at over 60,000 acres of flowering hemp, Steiner said. These days, the state is down to around 3,000 acres or so, owing to a combination of overproduction and prioritizing cannabinoids rather than the other uses of the hemp plant, sometimes referred to as “biomanufacturing.” 

One examples of biomanufacturing include microfibers extracted from the stock of a hemp plant, or “hempcrete,” an increasingly popular building material derived from the plant.

That’s where the market is headed now, Steiner said, and GHIC wanted to help tribes join that sector safely and effectively. 

“We knew where the market had gone, and so we wanted to focus on the future of hemp,” Steiner said. “In addition to helping the consortium stand itself up and function and operate, we then help these technical engineers, geneticists, policy analysts that can all then answer questions the tribes would have. Is that feasible, how would that work? Can we work together on that? Can some tribes be producers of hemp? Other tribes could be processors - what would it take to stand up a business to a new venture in these areas?”

Lisa Sundberg, a member of the Trinidad Rancheria of California and president of the Indigenous Habitat Institute, said her organization was focused on raising awareness around and developing supply lines for hempcrete. Created by using a chemical combination of hemp stock and lime, hempcrete has rapidly become a popular building material in tribal community construction, enabling quick build outs of small infrastructure on farms and in housing, per prior Tribal Business News reporting

The market for such materials has exploded in recent years, creating an opportunity for tribal producers to step in and provide supply, Sundberg said. The Indigenous Habitat Institute’s plans include developing a local source of lime so that all the tribes involved in the grant’s consortium could begin building an intertribal economy around hempcrete. 

“We want to start the transfer of knowledge and the receiving of knowledge,” Sundberg said. “We’re really excited.” 

Indigenous Habitat Institute board member Peter Holmdahl said tribes could utilize their different landbases and advantages to take up different steps of the hempcrete process. Part of the partnership with the GHIC involves developing and testing new formulations of lime that could better suit the hempcrete mixing process.

“What the OSU grant is doing is really providing us a roadmap with how tribes might work together,” Holmdahl said. “One tribe might have the land to grow hemp, another might have access to timber - it's a great opportunity.”

One of the other partner organizations, 7 Generations, plans on working directly with tribes to identify opportunities in bioplastics and other uses of the hemp plant, according to Managing Partner Doug Boon, a member of the Tulalip Tribes. 

The industrial hemp sector provides a diversity of opportunities, which is good because there’s a diversity among tribes hoping to enter that sector, Boon told Tribal Business News

Tribes like the Tulalip might look into bioplastics or other products that incorporate hemp as an element and then look to build partnerships with other tribes that lean more towards agricultural production, for example, Boon said.

“I think the challenges and opportunities are different for each tribe,” Boon said, pointing to the relatively small size of his own tribe’s reservation, which is about 22,000 acres. “We don't have the opportunities that other tribes have, because we're more of an urban tribe with a limited landbase. Our opportunities are more in creating those businesses that can use it as an element to what they're doing.”

About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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