Panel: Industrial hemp projects not risk-free

posted Feb. 12, 2018 8:04 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Nate Jackson Regional Editor |

EAU CLAIRE — While the creation of an industrial hemp pilot program in Wisconsin has sparked some excitement in the farm community, the crop does not come without risks, according to panel members at a Jan. 30 Wisconsin Hemp 101 educational seminar hosted by the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation at Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire.

The 2014 Farm Bill allowed states to create programs to grow, harvest and market hemp as long as it was done as part of a research project, but there is still work to be done at the federal level to allow hemp to go beyond pilot-program status in any of the 34 states that have legalized industrial hemp projects.

Attempts to legalize industrial hemp are still being made at the federal level, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation Senior Director of Governmental Relations Rob Richard told a crowd of about 200 farmers at the Jan. 30 seminar. The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2017 was introduced by Rep. James Comer, R-Ky. The bill has 39 co-sponsors, including five representatives from Wisconsin: Ron Kind, D-La Crosse; Glenn Grothman, R-Milwaukee; Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth; Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee; and Mike Gallagher, R-Green Bay.

“It’s been an ongoing struggle for 10 to 12 years, but this is the best shot we’ve ever had to get a bill passed that would exempt hemp from being classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic,” Richard said. “It’s good to know that Wisconsin has five co-sponsors on Congressman Comer’s bill. Five of our eight signed on. That should embolden you that our federal elected officials are really getting behind this idea.

“The stars are starting to align on this.”

Several panelists addressed potential issues with hemp coming from how the U.S. Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Administration chooses to classify hemp products.

The DEA has taken the position that cannabinoids — including the high-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC; cannabidiol, or CBD, the oil that is in high demand for many hemp-derived products; and more than 100 other chemical configurations within the cannabis plant — are the same as marijuana, and therefore constitute a Schedule I substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco is scheduled Feb. 15 to hear a lawsuit the Hemp Industry Association has filed against the DEA challenging their assertion that all cannabinoids be classified Schedule 1.

“If you’re looking to do something within the CBD industry, you should be watching this case very closely,” Richard said. “There was an amicus brief filed in support of HIA by 28 members of Congress telling the DEA they’ve gone beyond the bounds of the law of what they wrote in the 2014 Farm Bill.

“This crosses the political spectrum. It’s an issue a lot of them can agree on.”

Brian Kuhn, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection director of plant industry, said DATCP will have the emergency industrial hemp rules in place by March 2 and will then begin taking applications to grow the crop. Kuhn said that, aside from keeping records of the GPS coordinates of fields in which hemp is grown, DATCP will not be putting other security requirements in place.

“We’re trying to get hemp to be just a crop,” he said. “Growers might need to think about (security) on their own. If you are worried about attention from the public, you can decide where you would like to put it.”

Ken Anderson, founder and president of hemp seed broker Legacy Hemp, stressed that farmers should have a market in place before putting hemp seed in the ground.

“Obviously there’s quite a bit of interest, but I always say, ‘Let’s start at the end and make sure we have a market that we’re going into.’ We want to make sure that someone at the end of the day is going to be handing you a check,” Anderson said. “You cannot go to your local elevator and say, ‘What’s the cash price for hemp today?’”

Legacy Hemp, which deals in food-grade seed, is one of the likely sources for farmers to get certified hemp seed after the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection finishes drafting emergency rules. Neil Reiten, co-owner and production manager of Legacy Hemp, grew his first crop of hemp in 2017 in North Dakota.

“We experimented with some different seeding rates and seeding widths,” Reiten said. “On the organic side of things, it seems like you are best off in about 7½-inch rows for better row closure for weed suppression.”

While panelists said harvest can be done with the equipment farmers likely already have on hand, storage issues need to be addressed and timing is key.

“Not everyone has adequate on-farm storage,” Anderson said. “Post-harvest is the biggest issue that we’re seeing. The grain does really well while it’s on the stalk, but as soon as you take it off — if you don’t handle it properly and get it dried down to where we can use it — we can have you grow a bunch of great, premium hemp, and it gets spoiled in a bin.”

“Getting grain into a storable state is vital,” Reiten said. “It will heat, and it will spoil. Proper handling is very, very important.”

Reiten said harvesting issues can pop up if the hemp starts to get too dry. As it dries, the stalk becomes more fibrous, showing what makes it one of the strongest fibers in nature and so suited for use in rope.

“It started to wrap, hang, bunch, collect, everywhere. It would hang up on the head of a three-eighths bolt,” he said. “Duct tape will become one of your friends. As will a very sharp, fixed-blade knife.”

Reiten estimated his cost of production for his conventional hemp crop was around 32 cents per pound. Based on hemp prices in Canada, Anderson said farmers producing organic hemp seed are at $1.06 per pound and conventional are between 44 and 48 cents per pound. He said Legacy Hemp is contracting for 2018 at 2017 prices, which were $1.25 for certified seed and $1.18 for organic. Reiten said farmers can expect 1,200 pounds and it’s not unreasonable for farmers to expect up to 1,800 pounds of seed per acre in hemp yields.

“If you’re doing 1,000 pounds, you’re not doing well enough,” Anderson said.

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