MADISON — The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has been charged with creating a licensing system for farmers interested in growing industrial hemp, and the process of creating the rules for that system is already underway.
Brian Kuhn, director of the DATCP’s Plant Industry Bureau, told members of the DATCP Board Dec. 21 that the agency has been inundated with inquiries since a bill legalizing industrial hemp production was signed into law and went into effect on Dec. 2. The legislation creates a hemp pilot program that will permit farmers to grow industrial hemp through a licensing system set up by officials at the DATCP.
The bill gives the DATCP 90 days — or until March 2 — to develop emergency rules to operate the pilot program. Because of the narrow 90-day window, Kuhn said the rule-writing process is on a fast track to be ready for the March 2 deadline.
“We’ve already started on the rules, from seed planting to the exporting of the product,” Kuhn said.
DATCP officials have added a mailbox to the DATCP website to allow interested individuals to ask questions or provide input on the rules, Kuhn said. The mailbox currently only includes an analysis of the legislation but will have more features as the emergency rule-writing process proceeds.
The pilot program doesn’t specify how many licenses will be issued or how many acres can be grown in Wisconsin in 2018, Kuhn said, but he expects it to be in the neighborhood of 300 to 1,000 acres.
“We’re hoping people are entering with a bit of caution and due diligence on their part,” he said. “In other states we’ve followed, typically the number of acres starts small, and then as growers get a comfort level with how the program operates, other growers come in. That’s a reasonable approach.”
He said Colorado, Kentucky and Minnesota are among the nation’s leaders in acres grown, with between 3,000 and 6,000.
“It’s not likely that an individual grower will come in with 500 acres,” he said. “They’re going to want to see how their equipment is going to work with this and learn about the crop itself.”
Wisconsin has joined 33 other states in passing some form of legislation to legalize industrial hemp production and research, but the crop is only being grown in about a dozen states, Kuhn said.
Since this will be a pilot research program, the DATCP will put reporting requirements on growers to feed information back to the department on their experiences, he said.
Kuhn said he is not sure what will be in Wisconsin’s rules, but he said they have been talking to officials in other states for two or three years so they have a head start on the project.
“Our goal is to borrow the best ideas from other states that have learned from their experiences,” he said. Adjustments will likely be made from the emergency rule to the permanent rule based on what happens the first year or so.
DATCP officials will have until July 1, 2020, to finalize a permanent rule.
The Wisconsin Crop Improvement Association will be called on to administer a seed-certification program for industrial hemp, Kuhn said.
DATCP Board member Paul Palmby asked what sort of infrastructure will be established by the DATCP, with an “obvious opportunity for mischief in the whole thing.”
Hemp is often compared to marijuana, because both crops have varying amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. THC is the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects.
Some people have expressed concerns that some growers might try to incorporate marijuana in their hemp fields because the plants look similar, but Kuhn said that isn’t likely to happen.
“Normally they say you don’t want to plant the two together for cross-pollination purposes,” Kuhn said of marijuana and hemp. “Hemp has less than 0.3 of 1 percent of THC while marijuana is something like 5 percent. The concept is with cross-pollination you would dilute down the marijuana and risk a higher level of THC in your hemp that you wouldn’t want.”
Growers will have to have criminal background checks and their fields must be accessible to global positioning systems, Kuhn said. They will have to inform law enforcement that what they are growing is hemp “and not something else.”
Kuhn was asked how hemp is harvested, and he said today’s modern farm equipment can be used. However, he has heard about “strong challenges” to that theory from some who have been harvesting the crop.
“I have heard that hemp can bind up the spinning equipment that most people use for harvest,” he said. “There are some challenges that our growers will need to figure out.”
Growers will have to figure out growing and harvest challenges in the first couple of years as the crop is introduced to the state, Kuhn said.
“That’s why it’s a research project,” he said. “Every day in the hemp world we come away with more questions than we started with.”
For more information about industrial hemp, visit the DATCP’s website at https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/Programs_Services/IndustrialHemp.aspx or call 608-224-4500.