Appleton's Memorial Florists to diversify by growing hemp
APPLETON - Memorial Florists & Greenhouses is turning over one of its vast greenhouses to hemp.
It will be the first time Front Range Biosciences, a leading agricultural biotech company in cannabis, based in Lafayette, Colorado, has put a hemp nursery outside Colorado or California.
"We will be the first 'Clean Stock' nursery east of Colorado," said Bob Aykens, co-owner and president of Memorial Florists, referring to Front Range's genetics and root-cutting program. "I approached them. It’s something I’ve been looking at for three years. A way to diversify."
It's also a way for the nearly 100-year-old florist to recover revenues lost over the last decade to low-cost big box nurseries.
"It adds another revenue stream to offset the change in demand," Aykens said.
Industrial hemp is a high-fiber relative of marijuana used for textiles, rope, paper, clothing and cannabidiol (CBD) oil. It has low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana.
"There's literally no way you can get high off hemp," said Rob Richard, senior director of governmental relations at the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation in Madison.
Nevertheless, hemp was outlawed as a crop in Wisconsin in 1970, squashing Wisconsin's hemp growing industry.
"Wisconsin has a long history of growing hemp and was the top producer in the country from the 30s to the 50s," said Richard.
The state Legislature passed a law in November 2017 to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp once again.
While legal to grow, Richard said farmers are keeping an eye on a federal 2018 farm bill, yet to be signed, that gives them more incentive.
"It clears up any misinterpretation or legal interpretation of what hemp is. It will be a crop. It removes it from the controlled substances act," Richard said. "It makes it eligible for crop insurance, so it takes away some of the risk."
Richard sees hemp as a good option for Wisconsin farmers.
"Our farmers are going through a rough time because commodity prices and milk prices are taking a beating. This is one avenue for farmers to hopefully make some profit on a crop."
Besides Front Range, a number of other companies offering seeds and "clones" or tissue cuttings for propagating plants are starting in the state.
"They're looking at Wisconsin because we're No. 2 in available organic acreage. Organics are where a lot of the profitability is," he said.
Front Range leased one of Memorial's 15,400-square-foot greenhouses to grow tiny hemp plants — in much the same way greenhouses grow bedding or pack plants for home gardeners — that it will sell to Wisconsin farmers for planting in the fields.
The operation will add eight full-time jobs.
Memorial Florists' traditional floral and greenhouse operations will continue in the remainder of its 40,000-square-foot facility.
That means home gardeners, decorators, brides, funerals and those looking for the business' better quality plants will still find the same plants and services.
"Our regular customers won't see a difference. The facility is completely separate on our property," Aykens said. "This allows us to keep offering the high-quality plants that we sell."