WIU offers students opportunities in emerging cannabis industry
By Jodi Pospeschil
JK-Pospeschil@wiu.edu Office of University Relations
MACOMB - At first glance, it may be a surprise to drive by one of Western Illinois University's agricultural research fields and see cannabis growing alongside the research plots of corn and tomatoes, but a member of the University faculty has made it his academic and research mission to overcome myths about the plants and the many uses.
This fall, WIU Senior Biology Instructor Tom Vogel is teaching classes on cannabis and, with Assistant Professor of Agriculture Shelby Henning, is researching industrial hemp production and uses. Vogel is also conducting pancreatic cancer research with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Mette Soendergaard, cannabinoid extraction and identification with Forensic Program Director Assistant Professor Liguo Song, and gene expression research with Biology Professor Sue Hum-Musser.
As WIU launched two cannabis-related minors this semester, 'Cannabis and Culture,' and 'Cannabis Production,' and as cannabis is now legal in Illinois, the industry is spurring a range of academic opportunities for WIU students.
'The new cannabis minor within the School of Agriculture is certainly opening doors for our students,' said School of Agriculture Director Andy Baker. 'The new curriculum is providing students with research opportunities that have the potential to change the industry. The handson curriculum allows the students to work the plant in academic and research settings to solve some of the issues in growing and processing of cannabis.'
Vogel's program focuses on growing cannabis plants and networking with growers to explain the planting process as a cash crop. While both are cannabis, he likens the differences in hemp and marijuana to the differences between field and sweet corn.
'It's the same plant,' he said. 'However, the THC is low in hemp (less than .3 percent) and produces no euphoric affect. The Delta 9 THC is one of the many (greater than 150) cannabinoids found in the plant. Some of the many varieties we're growing this semester are very high in CBD, another cannabinoid that has a myriad of positive effects. Some of the varieties are grown more for the fiber and are used to make things like cloth, animal bedding, paper and concrete additives; however, the growing industry for fiber is still in its infancy.'
As cannabis became legal in Illinois, Vogel said many see the booming industry as a way to make money quickly. But he compares growing cannabis more toward gardening instead of farming.
'That helps some people who realize they have to be in the field nearly every day for weeding, looking for hermaphrodites, harvesting, drying, processing and selling,' he said. 'All of those things you don't do yourself take away from your profit and if you have a bad year, you may have no crop to sell.'
The harvested cannabis must have a CBD percentage of 12 or higher to be processed and sold. Vogel added that cannabis is projected to be a $25 billion industry in Illinois by 2022, but less than 5 percent of that total is earmarked for the farmers. He suggests one person, parttime, can handle about one acre of plants.
According to Vogel, there are a number of reasons, over the long history of the cultivation of this crop, why cannabis has been demonized. He wants to be part of the education process to remove stigmas and myths, while providing invaluable research opportunities for WIU students.
'I want to teach everyone how to grow these amazing plants and to get rid of misconceptions and mis-information,' he said. 'Along with my research, we're now able to be in the classroom and the lab.'
Vogel is working with a number of companies to help teach farmers how to successfully grow cannabis, both in campus fields and off-site. Cultivaris Hemp, Stoney Branch, Illinois Hemp Project, Hemplet Farms and Go Farm Hemp have been a few of the major contributors to his research.
'I want to help people of all generations learn what the plant can provide,' he said.
Vogel and Henning are teaching courses together
WIU Senior Instructor Tom Vogel shows plants in the greenhouse to students in his botany class. [SARAH RITTER/ WIU]