EAU CLAIRE — With corn and soybean prices down and no signs of a big recovery in 2018, farmers are looking for other ways to make a profit.
So when Gov. Scott Walker signed Wisconsin Act 100 on Nov. 30, creating an industrial hemp pilot program in the state, interest in this newly legal, alternative crop was piqued.
“It’s apparent that in agriculture throughout the state, we have a number of challenges with creating a profit, whether you’re in milk or meat or grains,” Farm Bureau President Jim Holte said Jan. 30 during a Wisconsin Hemp 101 educational seminar. “Hemp is an industry that could play a potential role in our future.”
The interest in industrial hemp was evidenced by the crowd of nearly 200 farmers at the seminar hosted by the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.
“There’s a huge interest in hemp right now,” said Brian Kuhn, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection director of plant industry. “The hemp site gets lots of attention every day, thousands of visits to check in on what’s going on with hemp in Wisconsin. It’s very out of character for the number of hits on a DATCP website.”
Kuhn said DATCP has been scrambling to get rules in place following the passage of Act 100, which gave DATCP 90 days to write the rules. DATCP will complete the emergency rule by March 2 and at that time will begin taking and approving permits to grow hemp this year. The emergency rules will remain in effect until a permanent administrative rule can be completed by July 2020.
“Hemp is on a rapidly evolving path with the regulatory picture that it sits in right now,” Kuhn said. “That brings some uncertainty to things, but that’s just the reality of where we’re at right now.
“Hopefully, that regulatory picture will clear up, and it will be just another crop that’s in the mix of agricultural crops in Wisconsin.”
Industrial hemp has a lower level of the high-inducing compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, than marijuana, which is a different type of cannabis. And while marijuana is higher in THC, industrial hemp is higher in cannabidiol, or CBD, the oil that is in high demand for many hemp-derived products.
“CBD is actually a counter-agent to THC, so it can really negate that high you get from THC; not that I would know from personal experience, that’s what I’ve been told,” said Rob Richard, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s senior director of governmental relations.
The law allows only industrial hemp of the species Cannabis sativa with THC concentration of 0.3 percent or lower. Farmers who decide to grow hemp will be required to get a license from DATCP to grow hemp and to pass a background check before receiving a license.
“These are things growers who are doing your usual agricultural activities are not used to hearing or thinking about when you’re growing a crop,” Kuhn said. “Having to have a grower have a criminal history check, GPS coordinates for where the crop is grown, chain of custody ... . This is different than any crop you’ve grown. It’s not planting corn and soybeans. It comes with a strong regulatory component.”
Because it’s a pilot program, the goal is to study the growth, cultivation and market for industrial hemp.
Bill Baker, associate dean for research at UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, said the industrial hemp project provides several exciting research opportunities.
“I’ve heard these great stories about people trying to harvest hemp with a combine and it making these rope balls that catch on fire and shoot out of the combine, and it’s just clear that there’s a lot of (research and development) that needs to be done,” Baker said. “I’ve heard from agricultural engineers interested in growing hemp at some of our ag research stations. They want to know, for example, does no-till work, or what kind of harvesting equipment are you going to need to be able to harvest the seeds. ... Is it really good at growing carbon in the soils, like the hemp industry says it is.
“That’s the type of thing the university is going to be looking at as part of the research project.”
Hemp is produced in 30 countries around the world. The U.S. imports about $600 million worth of hemp products annually, mostly from Canada and China. It’s used for anything from cosmetics to industrial oils to food and textiles to construction as an insulation or in hempcrete, a drywall-like product. Richard said hemp is also being used in high-tech industries in supercapacitor batteries.
“That’s where it gets exciting, where these emerging markets are going to occur,” he said.
Wisconsin was the among the nation’s leaders in hemp production from the 1920s to 1957, when it was lumped in with marijuana and classified as a controlled substance. Hemp was given new life in the 2014 Farm Bill, which allowed states to create programs to grow, harvest and market hemp as long as it was done as part of a research project. With the creation of the industrial hemp pilot project, Wisconsin is now one of 34 states to pass some form of legislation to legalize industrial hemp production and research.
“I think we’ll see a resurgence in Wisconsin hemp,” Richard said. “I think there’s a lot of excitement for it. It’s just a matter of putting the right pieces in place. I think what we’ve done with legislation is going to guide us in the right direction.
“If things go right, we should have legal hemp seed in the ground in Wisconsin for the first time since 1957.”
Although 34 states have approved some type of hemp research project, Richard said only about 10 to 12 states are actively pursuing the industry.
“There’s a real opportunity for Wisconsin to excel in this industry,” he said. “Act 100 is set up to direct DATCP to do whatever it can to maximize success for hemp in Wisconsin.”
Kuhn said DATCP is not going to put limits on the amount of acres a farmer can have in industrial hemp this year, but he said it’s unlikely anyone will dedicate 500 acres to the crop without testing it on a smaller scale first.
“Industrial hemp represents an exciting opportunity,” Kuhn said. “There’s a real high potential for Wisconsin. We’ve got a great growing climate and agriculture infrastructure for growing hemp.”
For more information about the state’s industrial hemp program, visit https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/Programs_Services/IndustrialHemp.aspx, email DATCPIndustrialhemp@wi.gov or call 608-224-4500.