Hemp struggles in first year, but advocates remain optimistic

Jim Dayton
Janesville Gazette

JANESVILLE - Willie Hughes was one of the Wisconsin farmers growing hemp legally for the first time in about seven decades, and he wanted his crop to thrive.

Industrial hemp plants that have signs of mold, decay or pests sit on the bed of a truck as employees at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute harvesting their quarter-acre of hemp for research at their location in East Troy, Wis., on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018.

Growing hemp carried uncertainty. What care did it need? How is it harvested? What’s its legality, considering the federal government still classifies it as an illegal substance?

Many curious farmers chose to stay on the sidelines and not grow hemp this year. They wanted to see how others handled it before jumping in.

Hughes put extra pressure on himself.

“A certain part of me wanted to do good because I felt that the success of the industry or the legitimacy of the crop might be judged by my success,” he said. “I wanted to do well for that reason.”

For corn and soybeans, farmers have a base of knowledge accumulated through generations of growing the crops, but they have no such base to draw from for growing hemp. They knew there would be hiccups and didn’t expect huge yields. This year still was part of the learning phase, Hughes said.

Good thing expectations were low. Results were not impressive.

By any economic measure, hemp returned with only a whimper.

Significant summer rains allowed weeds in hemp fields to flourish. A lot of hemp is grown organically, limiting use of chemical weed killers. Some farmers lost their entire hemp crops as weeds engulfed fields.

Michael Fields Agricultural Institute employees Allison Pratt-Szeliga, left, Shannah Schmitt, right, and Jakob Rose, behind, harvest industrial hemp from their research plot located at their location in East Troy, Wis., on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018.

The season’s poor outcome might discourage some farmers from planting hemp a second time. It might deter some farmers from giving it a shot at all.

But others are determined to learn from this year and find a way to make the crop work.

Hughes’ 15 acres of grain hemp had plenty of weak spots, but some areas were exceptional.

“I got little glimpses of what success looks like, and that was really exciting. Just spots in the field where it clearly, clearly worked,” he said. “That really cemented my belief that it’s possible.”

Growing pains

Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy grew small research plots of hemp grown for grain and hemp grown for cannabidiol, or CBD oil. These are two of the main products derived from hemp, along with fiber.

Grain hemp often is used to make cooking oil or health foods such as hemp hearts. Organic grain hemp seeds fetch about $1 per pound at market.

Hemp grown for CBD oil goes toward medicinal supplements and is significantly more lucrative than hemp grown for grain, netting between $20 and $45 per pound depending on its quality, Michael Fields Executive Director Perry Brown said.

The institute’s research and observations found hemp struggled in wet conditions. Pounding rains that later hardened the soil made it difficult for the plants to out-compete weeds as corn and soybeans can do, he said.

Michael Fields Agricultural Institute executive director Perry Brown laughs while hanging their harvested industrial hemp inside the barn for drying at their institute in East Troy, Wis., on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018.

Challenges posed by the growing season were evident in a field of CBD oil plants awaiting harvest. Some were full of branches and stood nearly 7 feet tall. Others were single, 2-foot stalks.

The big plants might net 5 or 6 pounds of hemp seed pods. The small ones would be lucky to get a half pound, Brown said.

Weather was one issue. A lack of proper equipment was another.

Bryan Parr, a Legacy Hemp agronomist whose company is one of a handful of hemp seed providers for Wisconsin farmers, said many farmers used outdated planting equipment that buried seeds too deep.

Harvesting went smoother than expected — hemp fiber is tough and can easily get tangled inside a combine if harvested improperly. One farmer who did have problems didn’t listen to Legacy’s instructions to clip only the grain head instead of trying to capture the entire stalk.

In this Oct. 23, 2018, photo, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute executive director Perry Brown, left, and Shannah Schmitt, behind, work with a team of employees to inspect their industrial hemp plants for signs of mold, decay and pests, while harvesting the quarter-acre grown for research at the location in East Troy, Wis.

That person had to torch a hole in their combine just to remove the fiber, Parr said.

Legacy worked with about 25 farmers across the state. Four of them gave up on their hemp crops because they were overtaken by weeds. The plants were there, but they weren’t worth the effort to harvest, he said.

“I think every farmer has been disappointed so far,” Parr said. “There have only been two or three farmers that have actually had a decent crop to harvest. Even those guys were somewhat disappointed for the sake of it’s been such a struggle with weather this year.”

Legal concerns

Farmers who tried hemp this year wanted to diversify their incomes.That corn and soybean prices have been stuck in a lengthy rut generated plenty of hemp interest, according to statistics from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The state distributed 242 grower licenses and 99 processor licenses, a one-time requirement. Most of them also registered to do business during the inaugural year, and state farmers planted nearly 1,900 acres of hemp, DATCP spokeswoman Donna Gilson said.

Locally, the state issued three grower licenses to farmers in Rock County and nine in Walworth County. There are two farmers with processor licenses in Rock and none in Walworth, she said.

The state did not differentiate between grain hemp and CBD oil hemp acreage. Those growing for CBD oil faced a scare at planting season when state Attorney General Brad Schimel threatened to disallow its production and distribution, saying sales and distribution could be done only by doctors.

Schimel reversed his position the next week.

Legacy does not grow hemp for CBD oil, but Parr suspects hemp might have legal hurdles to overcome despite Schimel’s reversal.

Some agriculture lenders refused to allow their farmers to grow hemp. UW-Madison opted not to do research out of fear it could lose federal research money, Parr said.

In this Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018 photo, Shannah Schmitt carries two plants of industrial hemp into the barn where they'll be hung to dry for several weeks in East Troy, Wis.

Right now, hemp production is considered illegal by the federal government despite being allowed in many states. The next federal farm bill includes a provision to regulate hemp production, but the bill’s passage has been delayed several times as Congress battles over food stamps.

Optimism remains

Hemp will likely never supplant corn or soybeans as Wisconsin’s primary commodity crop. Right now, its advocates are just hopeful it can carve out a niche as a rotational crop.

But it still has a long way to go.

Federal legalization would be a momentous step forward. Hemp is a cousin to marijuana and was outlawed years ago, even though it contains only trace amounts of psychoactive substances.

Wisconsin, once a major hemp producer, must rebuild its processing infrastructure. The state will need more hemp buyers and suppliers if it ever wants to scale up the crop’s acreage.

Legacy is considering locations for a processing plant, but it’s waiting to see if the market expands, Parr said.

One year ago, he talked to “hundreds” of farmers who were interested but wanted to see how things went in 2018. The tough conditions and inability to prove hemp as profitable mean many will still be cautious going forward, he said.

Gilson wasn’t sure if interest would wane next year. Brown thinks many farmers will return and that the crop has plenty of potential as long as its market proliferates.

Hughes plans on giving it another chance. Hemp fit in nicely with the other specialty crops the family grows on its farm south of Janesville.

Despite the challenging growing season, he called this summer an “important lesson learned.”

As the World Series winds to a close, Hughes used a baseball analogy to describe his mindset.

“Obviously you want to hit a home run. Who doesn’t want to hit a home run on the first year? But I did curb my expectations a bit because I knew it was going to be a challenge. Am I disappointed? A little bit.

“But I prepared myself. I wanted to do this not necessarily for financial reasons but for the knowledge. I wanted to learn and become a better farmer. I think I did that, even if on the first year I didn’t hit it out of the park.”

This story was reprinted with permission from the Janesville Gazette.