• Dr. Ramesh Dhakal
  • Asst. Professor / Plant Breeder
  • Industrial Hemp, Virginia State University Agricultural Research Station
Ramesh Dhakal VSU Hemp Seed Breeder
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0:00 |  Introduction:

I’m Ramesh Dhakal currently working as a hemp seed breeders at Virginia State University. I'm currently in charge of all hemp related research and similar activities conducted by VSU.  

0:22 |  What hemp varieties are VSU developing?

Though hemp has diversified use we are currently focusing on hemp seed oil and hemp fiber. Basically seed & fiber varieties are our objective. We are trying to develop high yielding varieties. In terms of seed & fiber for small growers around Virginia and Commonwealth region.

 

0:45 |  Why isn’t VSU as interested in CBD?

In terms of resources and the technology available to small farmers, CBD oil processing is a kind of high tech, high input requirement. So that it is a kind of out of reach for small farmers. It may not be beneficial or they may not compete with the big company or big farms that are involved in the hemp CBD oil. Due to that complexity in the processing, it is easier for a small farmer  to grow for seed varieties and they can process fiber. It is a kind of less complicated and it may be used for, and beneficial for, the small farmer in the longterm.

1:56 | How Many varieties do VSU have and their origins?

Most of them are obviously from Europe. We are evaluating sixteen different varieties that we got from Europe last year. And in addition to that, we got some Chinese varieties. This is the one we got from Virginia Tech. Its name is Ginma. This is a local variety from China. And, in addition to that, we have some heirloom varieties, Kentucky Plume, we got from Kentucky State University. So these are the varieties we are looking for and we are generally accessing for high seed yield. There is no, there is not any hard and fast rule for the threshold level of oil. But, as much as we can get—that will be beneficial.

2:32 | What is the ideal percentage of seed oil?

High Percent of Oil is at 25 to 30% -- in a rough count -- higher than that.. Not only the oil content, quality should be another parameter. Not only that there are differences between the oleic acid and linolenic acid or some saturated or non-saturated fatty acid. There is different component in the seed oil that determines the quality. So we have to be very careful in assessing the quality of the oil.  If we look only for high oil content …………………. So there should be some quantity and quality issue. We have to look between that. We have to consider all these factors, and if there is some good quality oil along with high seed oil content, than that would be good and economically viable for farmers.



3:44 | What's the approximate timetable  to breed one variety?

Seed breeding or developing a variety of any crop takes longtime. It's a long turn process. Generally, it takes around 7-10 years to develop a variety through conventional breeding process. And it is the timeframe of well-established crop, like soy bean, you can say. Corn. Rice. Wheat. But the difference between these crops and this industrial hemp  is that:we do not have any information  

We don't have any previous work. We don't have any public hemp breeding program in the U.S.. There is no any formal breeding program -until now. Because we just started. After long gap.  Before it were banned for cultivation. And there is no any germplasm source; there is no any open-sources.  So we have to collect. We have to collect some information, between germplasm or genetic pool before starting a formal variety development process or breeding program. And that is the step we are taking here at VSU. For that process we are trying to get germplasm; Trying to get all of kind of seed material from all over the world. And it is very difficult to get that. For example, I told you before, we got some Chinese variety, some Kentucky Plume, and we got some variety from some  public gene bank.

We got some access now, although we are still characterizing it. They're very diverse  in terms of  their maturity, in terms of their plant height,  their growth habit; in terms of their seed size. In every morphological aspect they're different.  And we're hopeful for that.

For these germplasms to be used in breeding program we have to characterize them first. We have to know all basic information about that.  We are still evaluating; we are still multiplying them. We have around 44 different germplasms. We're characterizing them. It will continue for next year too (2021). And once we have some sufficient information we'll decide how to proceed forward.  How to select the parent; how to make a cross between these diverse parent. And we will select all these parameters based on the trait we are looking for.

For example, if we are breeding for oil, we will select that germplasm with high oil content. For fiber we will, we will go for the tall high fiber developing plant. So we are trying to mix up that. It is a kind of hidden trial. So, from this germplasm pool, we will select the best germplasm, make a cross, develop the progeny,  And it will take some more years to evaluate;  and to get to a homogenous generation. In initial phase it will be more heterozygous, and they are not uniform, not like variety. Some are tall, some short. Some kind of mix.  Once you go on selecting and selecting them, it will make a stable and uniform variety.

So it will take at least around seven to ten years  for other crops when we have all information.  So it may be a little challenging  and difficult for hemp. But we are still trying to go through it, we are taking some initial step on that. So we are at least, at least in the very initial phase of variety development. So it will.. It will. It is a long goal.  

We have a long way to go. But let's see.  We can go through it. We can have some good variety

In other crops, in established crops—like soy bean, rice, and maize—there is some checkoff farm and some research program in big universities and big research stations. They are getting good some good sum of money  as checkoff farms from farmers.  Because they are good well established cooperative growers community on this crop. But here, this is a new crop. We don't have any established farmers cooperation, so we could not expect much  from farmers right now. Unless we can give them back something, we cannot expect much.  

But here, for our public breeding program,  we are getting some software from the USAID,  USDA & NIFA - from federal form and..  VSU is trying to make hemp breeding a good program.  We want to develop that. So, we have all kind of software from University from department of Agriculture,  and we have some software—in terms of finance. We have some small project going on through USDA; we are trying to go on building up more program. We have submitted some proposals so,  that's the way we are trying to give some money to sustain that  program in longrun.

7:51 | What are some of the challenges in starting a hemp breeding program from scratch?

Once we got some good variety, it is the responsibility of VSU. and the Dept. of AG.  University management, they will decide how to go through to the farmers market or how to release. There may be some Memorandum of Understanding  (M.O.U) on how to license [ a Variety ].  So we have to cross-breed the variety, after that University management committee will decide, how to proceed, how to release this varieties.

And as a public institution, it will be open-sourced.  There won't be any breeders protection,  as a land grant university we will have to  provide what information we have. So it will definitely be beneficial for farmers. They can easily get access to the seed, but there should be some procedure—we should figure it out; because it is a new—no established way, I think. As much as I know. So we have to work on that. For the benefit of both famers and the research institute.  

10:36 | If it takes 7-10 years to breed one variety, what can farmers expect 2-3 years from VSU?

On that sense we have some different kind of objective.  Our short-term objective, that's what we are doing, evaluating all available commercial varieties here. On the basis of this region we can tell farmers  which variety are yielding higher in terms of seed and oil. And which is doing good over the course of the time. Within two to three years—this is a stable one.  

Because we are not in the stable condition to release a new variety, we have to tell farmers what is available now. So these are the available varieties—we are trying to test its adaptability and any potential of this variety.   After analyzing after two to three years data, we can tell farmers this is a stable one.  You can go for that. Or this is the best suitable for this geographical region. This is the short-term objective. That why we are evaluating all varieties here.

And we will continue doing it,  once we get new more varieties. We are in the  process to get the new varieties every year.  This year (2020) we have sixteen varieties.  And we are trying to get two or three more varieties next year. Continuously, every year. This is the best.  So, meanwhile, you can do that. In the background, or side by side, we are doing our own breeding program. And, as I told you before, it definitely takes longtime—before releasing.  In meantime, we are evaluating commercial varieties and providing all the… and after that, once we get our superior varieties,  we will release that. It is a long turn process.

That's what we separated out as objective, short-term and long-term. That is the process we are doing.



12:26 | Is VSU open to public private partnerships?

If some other commercial company have some variety material to evaluate, we can definitely do that now.   We can evaluate; we can do some research; and we can provide some information generated from this material for their research purpose and development purpose.  Definitely we can work together with private people and we are looking forward to it.  

We are always open to work. We are always open to hear ideas;  and to integrate all those ideas to develop the hemp program,  and to build it up.

12:43 | Any parting words?

I just want to share a message that we are trying to buildup a good public breeding program for hemp. This should be a model, as we are one of the first land grant universities.  developing a public hemp breeding program.  And we have some good germplasm base too.  If you have any interest or want to  know anything  about our breeding program.. Please, come to our university; come to our office or contact us at anytime. We are open to talk; we are open to hear any ideas—or development that is going on here at VSU at anytime. We are working for farmers; we are working for you people. We are here for you guys.