MERCED, California (KSEE) — A research partnership at Merced College is putting its students at the forefront of the hemp industry. The goal is to create a foundation for hemp research and give students hands-on training for central industries in the region.

Biology professor Dr. Valerie Albano and two of her students have been determining what micro-organisms help hemp grow. They have also been figuring out which insects help, or hurt, the plant.

Hemp is a cannabis plant with high amounts of CBD, or cannabidiol, which is the relaxing component of cannabis. It has very little THC, or tetracannabinol, which is the psychoactive component.

“When I started reading the literature on how hemp is grown…there’s a lot of anecdotal information out there. But, not a lot of it has been scientifically vetted,” Albano said.

“It seemed to us that the best approach to researching hemp was just go at the basic biology route.”

Dr. Valerie Albano said Merced College partnered with the Greenbrier Hemp Research Institute and a hemp farm in Madera County for this.

With little scientifically known about it, the college has partnered with the Greenbrier Hemp Research Institute and a local hemp farm in Madera County to create this paid research opportunity.

For students, it’s hands-on experience in agriculture research. A big plus for Rebekka Cripe, who plans to turn her passion for bugs into a career as an agricultural commissioner.

“This is a really valuable experience because I’m seeing this is not just something that I’m really interested in, it’s the other part of what I’m interested in,” Cripe said.

It’s also a great opportunity for biotechnology research experience. Areli Duran sees herself working in a clinical lab down the road.

“Even though it’s not exactly the same thing, it’s very similar [to what I want to do]. What I want to do is more human,” said Duran.

Those two areas of research are big drivers in the Central Valley’s economy. Albano said the college’s mission has always been to train its students for the modern workforce, but her other goal with this is to build a foundation yet to be established for hemp.

“Hemp is a fascinating organism that is very underappreciated by modern biologists,” Albano said. “I’m really looking forward to identifying new aspects of the plant and kind of designating it as something separate from other cannabis plants that have a lot more research.”

In Fresno, Fresno State student Ali Porras has been operating her business Humble Hemp Products out of the university since 2018. She sells CBD oil and body butter. She said the stigma towards hemp has for being cannabis can be hard to deal with.

“I’ve been at vendor events and people will walk up and straight-up say what I’m selling is illegal,” Porras said.

Right now, Porras’ products are outsourced from Colorado since California doesn’t have a lot to offer right now. She described the industry here as “barely beginning.”

However, after hearing about the research going on at Merced College, she wants more institutions here to start similar programs. Her hope is to be able to completely source Central Valley made products to sell in her business.

“I’m in the process of working with hemp farmers and seeing what they want to do with their hemp,” she said.

The research partnership at Merced College is only in effect for a year, but Albano already plans to request an extension so more can be learned about the plant and bring more students in on the opportunity.

“This is a perfect relationship for us to get our students up-to-speed on the skills they need to get jobs,” Albano said.