Central State researchers lead $10 million sustainable ag project

Dubbed SUSHI, the work focuses on aquafarming and hemp.

Researchers at Central State University are leading a $10 million USDA-funded sustainable agriculture systems project.

The five-year Sustainable Use of a Safe Hemp Ingredient (SUSHI) project involves aquaculture, also known as aquafarming, the controlled production of aquatic organisms such as fish or algae.

The SUSHI effort will investigate the use of hemp as an aquaculture feed, train aquaculture producers and increase the production of healthy fish in the Menominee Nation.

Starting in late 2021, the director of the project has been Brandy Phipps, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Life Sciences and researcher in the food, nutrition, and health project of the Agriculture Research and Development program.

One of Phipps’ goals is to leverage SUSHI as a means to help bolster diversity in the agriculture workforce, “which has historically been lacking.”

“Projects such as SUSHI, Phipps strongly believes, can aid in alleviating such crucial statistical gaps by collaborating with communities — particularly members of the underserved and underrepresented — to generate substantial agricultural development and outreach programs that will ultimately lead not only to further workforce equity but independent community food sovereignty, as well,” university officials said.

The partnerships for the project include College of Menominee Nation, University of Delaware, Kentucky State University, University of Kentucky, and Mississippi State University.

Phipps says agriculture is a food system and those working within the field are “dealing with people,” such as those on the production side and the consumption side, and “there are factors for both to be productive, healthy and economically secure.”

The SUSHI team is not only figuring out to feed people now but also how to feed generations to come economically, environmentally and equitably.

Craig Schluttenhofer, research assistant professor of Natural Sciences, said he began working with Phipps in 2019 when she first introduced herself and they talked about the benefits of hemp and starting the SUSHI project.

For the project, Schluttenhofer directs research on campus, which includes working with a lot of CSU Marauders in the lab, and specializes in plant physiology.

“When people hear ‘hemp,’ they automatically think of the high-THC cannabis that could be intoxicating. But by definition, hemp has to have low levels of THC. The federal limit for hemp is 0.3% THC. We see a lot of potential for hemp, which historically has been used for its grain and for its fiber,” he said.

Phipps initially wrote the grant that’s been funding the project through the USDA, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) also provides funding for this project.

With funding from the SUSHI grant, there are several projects being worked on, many that involve, employ and pay students. The projects are tailored toward Central State due to the “extensive and diverse backgrounds” of Phipps, Schluttenhofer and their cohorts, which include health and nutrition (Phipps), hemp production (Schluttenhofer), and fish expertise and water health via Kumar Nedunuri, professor of Water Resources and Environmental Engineering.

A goal, Schluttenhofer said, is to “find new methods, as with hemp cultivation, to help community members in largely land-locked areas like ours to develop new methods of producing their own fish independent of coastal ocean-based fishing.”

He added: “Realistically sustainable long-term fishing in the oceans is being depleted rapidly for various reasons involving those that are both economic and environmental, which is why we want to develop such markets in places elsewhere like where we are.”

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