Bowler woman takes part in college’s hemp research work

Desai presents findings publicly at Research in the Rotunda
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Universities are researching a variety of things as students work to advance their knowledge of the universe, and Maya Desai from Bowler is one of them.

Desai recently presented her research to lawmakers and other influential people in Madison as part of the Research in the Rotunda program. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point student presented information about the compost application rate needed for sustainable hemp agriculture in Wisconsin.

Desai works for the university’s pedology lab, which examines soil issues, and the research she did was “adjacent” to the lab, she said.

“We looked at an ideal compost application rate for growing hemp in a sustainable way,” Desai said.

Hemp was legal in Wisconsin until the 1970s, according to Desai, and once it became outlawed, so did looking into its applications.

“Up until the ’50s, it was one of, if not the largest, agronomic commodities in the state of Wisconsin,” Desai said. “We were one of the number one producers in the country of hemp, primarily for fiber. Once it became illegal in 1970, a lot of that knowledge on how to grow it and how to use it was lost, and once it became legal again in 2018, we kind of set out to start building back up that knowledge base, primarily in the context of using it for CBD, but that’s not the only use for hemp.”

Other uses, Desai noted, include animal forage, fiber and biomass, among other things.

“My lab was looking at how compost at different rates would affect not only the plant health but also the soil health,” she said.

Desai said that the ground around the Stevens Point area has a lot of sandy soils that were deposited by glaciers during the last ice age, which doesn’t hold nutrients and water as well as other types of soil in the state, so it was important to see if the compost could add nutrients that would help plants grow and flourish in that area.

Desai and the pedology lab worked with UW-Stevens Point’s chemistry and biology labs, which ran analyses to see how the compost would affect the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels in the hemp plants, as well as the cannabidiol (CBD) produced in the plants, with the latter being used to address seizure disorders and digestive issues, among other things.

“What they found was that THC was not affected by the compost at all, which is really good,” Desai said. “That’s what we want. We want to keep it below the legal limit because, in Wisconsin, we’re not producing for THC yet. Maybe down the road.”

On the other hand, CBD levels were impacted, Desai discovered during the research.

“We saw significant increases in plant biomass, significant increases in soil quality, soil health and then an increase in CBD, as well,” she said. “It’s not just a drug. It’s a really cool plant that has the opportunity to do some really cool things.”

Composting is not a new issue, Desai noted. It’s a traditional method for growing things that has been in existence for thousands of years, she said.

“With this research, we’re not saying that it’s better or worse than fertilizers. We don’t even look at fertilizers, and we’re not comparing it to that,” Desai said. “We’re just trying to put the research out there so that people have concrete evidence that it actually does work.”

UW-Stevens Point has recently received a grant, according to Desai, to investigate how growing hemp might be able to remediate PFAS concentrations in the soil.

“I know that’s a super hot topic throughout the whole state right now,” Desai said. “We’ve looked at how hemp can remediate heavy metals such as arsenic and lead, and we’ve got some pretty solid results there, so now we want to look at how it can impact the PFAS concentrations.”

Plans are in the works to publish a paper based on the hemp research done so far, and Desai said there is at least one lawmaker interested in pushing for legislation that benefits the hemp growers in his district. She believes hemp and its benefits will be better for society once it’s “more mainstream.”

Desai noted that Research in the Rotunda gave her the opportunity to find out what other students were researching, and it gave her the opportunity to reach out to people capable of taking the information she’s researched and potentially transform it into public policy.

“It was more than I hoped for,” Desai said. “It was, honestly, a really great experience. I had presented research before, but this was just another level being able to talk to our congressmen, our representatives and then also meet the president of the UW System. It’s just really cool that they’re fostering this research at the undergraduate level.”