Planting cannabis, photo by Allisa Coomey
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After playing a major role in the revitalization of industrial hemp in New York State, SUNY Morrisville is rolling out a new minor in cannabis studies that will prepare students for the rapidly growing medicinal and recreational marijuana industry.

While online curriculums or certificate programs have provided a patchwork approach to education in the field, SUNY Morrisville is one of the first mainstream campuses to offer a minor in cannabis studies. The new program focuses on what SUNY Morrisville does best — preparing students with hands-on skills and knowledge — and capitalizing on an industry that is one of the fastest-growing sectors in agriculture nationwide.

The curriculum for the 16-credit minor is currently under development, with classes and labs designed to cover both the agronomy (hemp) and specialty crop (medical and recreational) sides of cannabis. This curriculum would include topics like CBDs, an oil derived from the plant that has also seen a surge in popularity.

Students spent the spring semester exploring growing methods; the cannabis minor will officially launch in fall 2019.

Alumni who have already found jobs in the burgeoning cannabis industry say the existing curriculum in Morrisville’s horticulture program has prepared them to thrive in the workplace.

“As I read the job descriptions for this field, it is everything we teach,” said Kelly Hennigan, associate professor of horticulture and chair of the Horticulture Department. “They need attention to detail, they need the science behind the propagation of these plants. They need knowledge about fertilizer. It is all applicable.”

But the new degree program will push the field past its underground roots, applying the scientific method and peer-reviewed research trials to an industry that has been secretive for decades due to legal issues.

From seed to harvest

The greenhouses at SUNY Morrisville have their own life cycle, filled with poinsettias at the holidays and hanging baskets and Easter lilies in the spring. Students tend to the plants as part of their coursework, learning how to nurture each species with proper nutrient loads and hydration techniques.

Hennigan and instructional support assistant Howard Rice treat the cannabis plants with the same care and oversight. One room in the Spader Horticulture Center is dedicated to germination, with plants growing under different lighting conditions to determine optimum growth. Flowering takes place in an adjacent room, where high-pressure sodium lights require students to wear safety goggles when they enter to take measurements.

In the greenhouse, a row of cannabis plants are being watered with different solutions so that students can learn to recognize and diagnose the symptoms of nutrient deficiencies. Still another setup is experimenting with hydroponics, which Hennigan says is standard for many indoor growers.

“From seed to harvest, whatever it is you want to grow it for, we want to grow it the best,” Hennigan said. “That’s what we teach. And that’s what makes this a perfect fit for us.”

Riley Cepiel lays in a field of cannabis

Propagating a future

When Riley Cepiel arrived at SUNY Morrisville, he was nervous about telling his fellow horticulture students about his interest in the medical marijuana industry.

“I quickly realized it wasn’t just me, there were more of us,” said Cepiel, who grew up outside of Saratoga Springs, New York.

He spent his semesters at Morrisville working in the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) greenhouse, knowing that the experience of working with a 4,000-gallon indoor aquaponics system would give him an edge when applying for jobs.

“My friends would know when I had lab because I had dirt under my fingernails when I came to the dining hall,” said Cepiel, a horticultural business management bachelor’s degree student.

His resume landed him a position at Triple M — Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts — where he was promoted within six months to the role of propagation manager.

“I was the only person with a horticulture background,” Cepiel said. “The things I was training people to do — mixing nutrients, how to properly water plants — that was what I had learned from my time at Morrisville.”

Cepiel sees potential in the industry and has hopes of starting his own cannabis breeding company one day.

“It is an exciting industry,” he said. “You can always feel that energy in the air.”

A new chapter

Fellow alum Cody Sheldrake ’17 grew up outside of Ithaca, New York, and spent a lot of time at the garden center started by his grandparents. His grandfather was a professor at Cornell University who invented a brand of peat mix still used today; their farm focuses on annuals and perennials from February to July and sells vegetables and sweet corn at a roadside market.

Now, the family business is looking to expand into hemp and CBD, with Sheldrake and his father obtaining a state license for their first crop this summer.

“I think my grandfather would be all over this for sure,” Sheldrake said of the burgeoning cannabis industry. “It breaks my heart to see farms crumble. This could bring some new lifeblood for those that weren’t making ends meet before.”

Sheldrake, a horticultural business management bachelor’s degree graduate, said one of the biggest hurdles remains the stigma surrounding cannabis. “Researching the plant and legitimizing it in academia would be a great step forward,” he said.

Cannabis leaves, photo by Allisa Coomey

Sheldrake said he is excited for the new focus on cannabis at SUNY Morrisville, which he credited with his success in both botany and business.

“You learn a lot in the classroom, but you learn even more in the field,” he said. “All of the growing classes apply to everything that we grow here.”

Did you know?

Currently, 33 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized marijuana for medical use, while 10 permit recreational use.

New York legalized medical cannabis in 2014, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed legalizing recreational marijuana in 2019.

Analysts have predicted the future of the legal cannabis industry in the U.S. will be worth more than $24 billion, and the global medical marijuana industry will be valued at more than $50 billion.

Economists predict that the cannabis industry will create 250,000 jobs by 2020.

A plant with a purpose

Both hemp and marijuana are the Cannabis sativa plant and are cultivated for a wide variety of uses from textiles and industrial raw materials, to food and medicines as well as recreational purposes.

Industrial hemp is bred to have below 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, which contains 10 to 20 percent of the chemical compound.

“Cultivated varieties have specific characteristics bred into them, depending on the purpose of the plant,” said horticulture professor Kelly Hennigan.

Howard Rice '16 is playing a major role in developing the curriculum for the cannabis degree.

From student to teacher

After Howard Rice ’16 earned his bachelor’s degree in horticultural business management at SUNY Morrisville, he moved to Colorado where he worked for a large greenhouse production company growing annuals. He returned to Morrisville in 2018 and is playing a major role in developing the curriculum for the cannabis degree.

He answered a few questions for Momentum.

Q. How do you think your education at SUNY Morrisville set you up for success?

A. The horticulture program at Morrisville set me up for success by giving me plenty of practical experience. I realized this after I graduated and began working full time — many of the horticultural practices I learned in college made it easy for me to transition into the green industry.

Q. Why do you think it is important to train students properly for the emerging cannabis industry?

A. We stress the importance of training because we want to send professional individuals into the industry who will make ethically sound decisions when it comes to growing cannabis. With the proper education, our students will be ready to make a smooth transition into the cannabis industry, which will positively influence cannabis legalization by providing knowledgeable employees.

Q. How are the students reacting to the new cannabis studies minor?

Students seem to be excited about the new cannabis initiative here in the horticulture program. They are constantly checking how the plants are doing and they ask many questions. They are ready to sign up for Cana 101 this fall!

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