JANESVILLE — Willie Hughes recalled seeing a photograph in an old family photo album of his great-great-grandmother raising industrial hemp during the war effort around 1945. Now he has his own field growing — one of Rock County’s first industrial hemp plots in more than 70 years.
“We see the knowledge as the return,” Hughes said July 11 at the “Small Grains, Modest Gains: A Pragmatic Approach” field day at his family’s farm in Janesville. “We want to establish ourselves in an early market and be one of the first in that market. It’s higher risk but also a higher reward.”
When the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection opened up applications for farmers to grow the inaugural industrial hemp crop last year, Hughes applied for a license. He said the regulation process was extensive and very involved, but he was also fascinated by it.
He thanked his father, Randy, for being open minded when he approached him about the idea of growing industrial hemp — a plant still surrounded by myth and that continues to carry some stigma.
“I saw the opportunity and my dad took a chance,” he said. “We wanted to be on the ground floor of a new market.”
Once they decided to do it, the Hugheses had to find a piece of ground that would fit into their already established crop rotation. An approximately 70-acre piece of land that once served as a Christmas tree farm was a good selection as it had been organic ground for five years.
However, this piece of land was set to grow organic corn this year — it was a tough decision and Hughes had to change his mindset in order to make it work.
“We were at ground zero again,” he said. “But taking on a new industry and a new market was almost liberating.”
Hughes worked with Legacy Hemp in Prescott to source the seed, a certified X-59 seed, which boasted an average acreage of more than 1,300 pounds per acre and tends to be one of the lower THC-producing plants on the market. This partnership turned out to be a good one as Legacy Hemp will be buying the hemp crop come mid- to late September, when it is standing 5 to 6 feet tall and ready to be harvested.
Hughes will then seed a cereal rye cover crop into the field.
Out in the field, Bryan Parr of Legacy Hemp explained how the male hemp plants had begun to seed and were yellowing. Their purpose in the field is to pollinate the female hemp plants for grain production, and then to die off, something that will happen in the following weeks.
He said the hemp seed mix is about 50/50 male and female — an important consideration as half the crop will die off before harvest.
The shorter, green female hemp plants will then begin to jump in height before they are ready to be harvested. DATCP plans to test the field’s THC levels two to four weeks before harvest, making sure it’s below the required levels for industrial hemp production in Wisconsin.
This variety of industrial hemp has about a 120-day maturity, Parr said. It does not handle large amounts of moisture around planting time, which was a problem some new industrial hemp farmers ran into this year.
Harvesting will also be difficult and slow as the fibers produced by the plant is very durable, especially when dry. Hughes anticipates needing 12 to 18 percent moisture in order to harvest the crop, with Parr adding that the crop will need to be processed within six to eight hours of the harvest to prevent it from spoiling.
Hughes hopes to get 200 bushels off his nearly 70-acre plot, with about 44 pounds of hemp grain equaling a bushel. He has contracted with Legacy Hemp to receive $1.07 per pound of finished dry grain delivered to the company in Prescott.
Parr said the company has 500 farmers under contract but was aiming for 1,200 in this first year. Next year, he hopes to offer contracts, and markets, to more conventional farmers as he sees a spike in interest in industrial hemp with conventional farmers.
Most of their contracts are in the Eau Claire area, but Hughes wasn’t going to let an opportunity to get into a new commodity market pass him and his family’s farm operation by.
“It is not by any means an easy thing to grow — it’s high risk,” Hughes said. “But it’s a high-value crop.
“The story’s not over — it’s just getting started.”