Ag Research Spotlight: Janna Beckerman
“This isn’t like corn or beans; hemp is a unique crop that could be used in a broader agricultural scheme. We’re trying to fill in the information gaps to develop an industry.” -Janna L Beckerman, Professor of Botany and Plant Pathology
The Ag Research Spotlight shines each month on an individual whose work reflects our commitment to the six strategic themes that guide Agricultural Research at Purdue. Our spotlight for November 2015 underscores the theme, “Facilitating informed decision making to improve economic and social well-being.”
Janna Beckerman credits her early interest in plants to her grandmother’s bountiful garden. Beckerman grew up in a Cleveland suburb as a self-described “nerdy kid” who thrived in the Future Scientists program at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and a doctorate in plant pathology at Texas A&M University. Her affinity for extension grew in the Texas Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab, where she applied her strong background in ecology and expertise in disease management to assisting a wide range of commercial and residential growers. After completing postdoctoral work in genetics at the University of Minnesota, Beckerman joined the Purdue faculty in August 2005. Her broader work with specialty crops led to an unconventional research subject—hemp, which hasn’t been grown legally in the U.S. in 80 years. “As a research opportunity, it was too tempting to pass up,” she says. “This is the first new crop in our lifetime, and it’s fascinating to be on the ground floor.”
Beckerman works with hemp that’s used in fiber and food products, not the marijuana variant. Industrial hemp contains much lower levels of the compound THC than marijuana. Beckerman collaborates with the Office of Indiana State Chemist, which tests for THC, the Drug Enforcement Agency, state police, and seed suppliers to ensure the university’s research plots are legal. She and her Purdue colleagues across several Agriculture disciplines are working to close gaps in the knowledge of industrial hemp. “We’re trying to identify some of the fundamental agronomic issues that will impact hemp production in Indiana,” she explains. Their goal is to offer science-based advice to future commercial hemp growers.
"SUCH A COOL PLANT"
Beckerman appreciates the beauty of the wind-pollinated plant, but she is even more interested in its disease management. Existing literature calls hemp practically immune, but after the wettest season on record in her test plots, Beckerman’s hemp has “more diseases than I can deal with,” she says. “That’s a great problem to have if you’re a plant pathologist.”
HEMP'S FIT IN AGRICULTURE
U.S. industries ranging from construction to auto manufacturing to artisanal food processors (or producers) use hemp imported from Canada and China. Establishing a U.S. industry requires advance work by scientists so growers can make informed decisions, Beckerman says. Closer to home, she hopes that certain Indiana-friendly cultivars might help some of the state’s farmers develop more sustainable systems for their farms. The questions that farmers ask at field days help inform Beckerman’s work. “One of my big interests is trying to help people make good decisions so they don’t find themselves in economic peril,” she says. Outside of her work, Beckerman keeps busy with her own garden, yoga, and assisting in her 17-year-old daughter’s college search — which, she says, consists primarily of providing the credit card.