Next steps for hemp in Wisconsin
With Gov. Scott Walker signing a bill legalizing hemp production in Wisconsin last month, farmers wait for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) to create hemp regulations and permitting processes before deciding if hemp is a crop they want to grow.
Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation Board of Directors members Joe Bragger and Adam Kuczer are excited about the opportunities hemp can bring to farmers in diversity, changing up crop rotations and cover cropping. Hemp could also provide opportunity for transitioning to organic since it chokes out weeds well.
While Bragger looks forward to Wisconsin farmers being able to supply some of the $600 million a year in hemp that's been imported into the U.S., he reminds farmers to proceed carefully.
"Here in Buffalo County we have a lot of test plots for barley for malting and through that process I became acutely aware you need to take the time, do some plots, see what works for your area and become familiar with the process rather than jump into it full steam," Bragger cautions.
Bragger initiated the Buffalo County hemp resolution that passed at the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation 2016 annual meeting. He said they want to get good information out so producers know what they are getting into. Hemp is highly versatile, but markets, like the fiber market, have to be developed.
"Unless you have a market or contract, be very careful," said Bragger. "It’s not like corn you can throw in a truck and take just about anywhere."
The possibility of growing hemp as another cash crop to spread out his risk caught Kuczer's attention because prices are low on other crops. It could also help in his crop rotation, fitting in well with his corn, wheat and soybean rotation.
Kuczer plans to do lots of research on finding a market to determine if he should take the risk of growing hemp. He knows the cost of buying hemp seed to plant and the price range for the harvested crop, but "there are a bunch of variables in between."
"I need to get them hammered down to make sure it's justifiable as a cash crop for me," Kuczer said. "It's giving farmers another option in the state anyways."
Ken Anderson, president of seed company Legacy Hemp LLC., reiterates Bragger's points, stressing the importance of having a buyer lined up and a legitimate contract in place for any sizeable acreage before jumping on the hemp wagon.
"If you want to grow hemp just to grow it and see if you can do it on a couple of acres, that’s one thing, but if you’re expecting a market to be there when you’re done, hemp isn’t something you can just take to your local grain elevator and ask them what the cash price for the day is," said Anderson. "I do not want farmers out there sticking their necks out and hoping a buyer comes at the end of the day."
Even though Legacy Hemp is a seed company and a processing company, Anderson said they don't sell seed to plant unless the producer has a contract in place with Legacy Hemp or another market.
Even before the industrial hemp bill passed, Anderson had more farmers interested in producing than he had contracts.
"If in 2019 we have farmers with grain and no place to go ... that is so hard on an industry," Anderson added. "It will be devastating and I don't want any part of it."
The Wisconsin hemp industry began in 1908 with nine acres in Mendota and Waupun, according to a history of hemp on hemphasis.net. By 1915, acreage rose to 400 and by 1917 hemp was grown on 7,000 acres. In 1918, the leading hemp producing counties were Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Dodge, and Racine.
From 1914 to 1958, Matt Rens, later known as the "Hemp King," grew hemp. He built several hemp processing mills and rented equipment to farmers to sow and harvest crops.
Wisconsin ranked with Kentucky and California as the most important states for growing hemp for fiber in 1918, according to a May 1918 report on hempology.org.
While hemp had firm rooting in Wisconsin in 1918, hemp began to decline in the 1920s, according to hemphasis.net.
While historically hemp in Wisconsin was grown for fiber, the grain market is the biggest market for industrial hemp now, said Anderson.
"Right now the fiber markets of industrial hemp is very much lacking," Anderson said. "The thing with fiber is you really have to have centralized locations for processing, and processing is something that is very lacking in industrial hemp right now. Grain is pretty easy to process."
The market for hemp grain is "definitely strong on the organic side," Anderson pointed out.
"Organic acreage is a little less risky because there are a lot of buyers out there, but the conventional acreage, the prices are fluctuating," said Anderson. "Right now we really won't know until the first weeks in January."
Conventional hemp grain prices feed off the Canadian grain market, since it's normally the same buyers for the Canadian and American market. While conventional buyers are paying between 42 and 46 cents per pound, organic hemp is more than double that price, Anderson said.
Anderson is excited about the kind of market and product development he knows Wisconsin can "bring to the table." When conventional food makers start to realize that hemp can be an ingredient put in other food products because of it's attributes, like high omega 3, omega 6 and easily digestible plant proteins, and is market driven, "that's what I'm excited to see."
"When it’s actually going into mainstream products, that’s when you can have major acreage and that’s really when farmers can benefit when there is a larger buying pool than the novelty niche market," Anderson said. "I think Wisconsin is going to bring that to the table with their forward thinking ... everything that happens in Wisconsin fits right into it."
Hemp vs marijuana
A number of years ago Anderson would walk into hostile environments when trying to sell hemp seed because people equated hemp with marijuana.
"Ten years ago, unless parents or grandparents grew hemp, it took a little education to say, look, we aren't after marijuana," said Anderson. "You can't make marijuana out of what I'm asking you to grow, or what I'm trying to get you interested in producing."
The misperception of hemp as marijuana has gotten less over the years, Anderson added. Once farmers realized that hemp and marijuana aren't the same, they would ask, "why can't I grow it?"
"It's nice that is changing," said Anderson.
While hemp is still considered a Schedule I narcotic, Anderson said there is federal legislation moving through that would remove hemp from the controlled substance list.
"Then it's just another crop and that's really when farmers win," Anderson pointed out. "When hemp is just another ag crop, a lot of these restrictions, red tape, will just be gone. And that's what we need."
As farmers wait for DATCP guidelines and research growing hemp, they will find they won't need special modifications to equipment in order to plant and harvest hemp.
One thing necessary with hemp that some farmers might not have, however, is hopper bottom grain storage with air.
"It's really important when you're dealing in a food grain like industrial hemp," Anderson explained. "You have to be able to dry it down to at least less than 9 percent moisture for long term storage, for any storage. You don't want it to be spoiling in your bin. That doesn't do anyone any good."
Hemp will grow on well-drained soil with good organic matter, Anderson pointed out. Hemp also likes a higher soil Ph, almost in the acidic range.
Anderson said Legacy Hemp has a standard procedure of taking baseline soil samples at the beginning of the year to direct farmers to achieve the high yielding soils needed to produce the nutritionally dense, premium grain the company is after.
Hemp can be planted any time after the soil hits 50 degrees, Anderson said. Seed is planted to a depth of one-half to three-quarters of an inch, with rows spaced 7.5 inches apart and the seeding rate at 30 to 35 pounds per acre.
Anderson wants to push other industries in Wisconsin to look at hemp as something they can add to what they are already doing. When that happens, the hemp industry "can bring a value added commodity to the Wisconsin farmer when they are hurting so bad right now."
"It’s time that farmers start making money again. We owe them so much," Anderson added.
Anderson's dream is to see consumer demand push other industries to add hemp to their products, allowing farmers to become profitable with industrial hemp.
"The average general public does not know what farmers go through. Farmers need to be profitable once again," said Anderson. "If we can do that with a consumer driven marketplace rather than a heavily subsidized marketplace, where they’re not making any money - it’s time to step up Wisconsin."