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WISCONSIN DELLS - With hemp poised to score a historical victory if President Donald Trump signs the 2018 Farm Bill, a panel of experts gathered during the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF) convention on Dec. 2 to discuss all things hemp. 

Led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the 2018 Farm Bill would legalize hemp, removing it from the list of Schedule 1 illegal drugs.  

Related: McConnell's year-end wish: Getting Congress to legalize hemp

With the first year of growing hemp in Wisconsin in the books, Ken Anderson, Founder of Legacy Hemp which contracted with a number of Wisconsin producers, shared successes and lessons learned during the pilot. 

Lessons learned

"The successes definitely weren't yield," said Anderson. 

No different than any other crop, weather grossly affected yield this year. As soon as fields were planted, some producers got several inches of rain, which resulted in bad emergence.

"Our focus was on organic and so if you don't get good emergence, you're going to have weed pressure issues," Anderson explained. "That was unfortunate for us and for our producers. Yields definitely weren't where they should be."

Rain at harvest time kept producers from realizing yield potential since they couldn't get on fields, which didn't allow for a fair assessment of what yield could be in the state.

"For the first time ever, I witnessed sprouting on heads. I've never seen that in my life," said Anderson who has been in the hemp industry since 2009. "I can't say that is a good thing ... but it definitely was a new thing."

With the last running hemp mill shut down in 1957, Anderson said there is no historical data to know what yield to expect in Wisconsin. 

Anderson said most farmers Legacy Hemp contracted with weren't able to clean store their own grain, allowing Legacy Hemp to call on them when it was time to put hemp into the marketplace. "So establishing receiving centers is something that's definitely a positive," Anderson added. 

One of the biggest challenges Legacy Hemp faces is the availability of acreage for what the company needs, Anderson said. 

"The markets are expanding, processing is there and that's a great thing," said Anderson. "So it's nice that the problem is now we need more farmers to grow more acreage for us. That is a good problem, but it is still a problem."

Related: Hemp: The amazing chemical factory with huge potential

Anderson said Legacy Hemp is excited to work with farmers in Wisconsin as the hemp industry moves forward since they are "definitely problem solvers." Even with some slight problems farmers experienced this year, Anderson said, "It's nice to work with guys that don't just throw their hands in the air and say this isn't going to work. You guys figure it out. You make it work and that's what we're excited about for Wisconsin."

Hemp do's, don'ts

When it comes to what worked best this year, Anderson said they found that sandy loam soil worked very well for growing hemp for grain, "based on if you have good nutrients and the soil can drain." 

"The one thing that hemp does not like is wet feet," Anderson explained. "So if your soil is going to capture and hold water and not dissipate and you don't have drain tile in there, that's the biggest no-no for your soil condition."

Seeding rates for grain are normally 30 pounds per acre, with it being about double if growing for fiber, however, the market and infrastructure are not in place to grow hemp for fiber in Wisconsin, according to Anderson.

Farmers who are row cropping probably have the equipment necessary for hemp grain.

Soil temperatures of 50 degrees or above will provide fast emergence. Anderson recommended a planting depth of about a half inch, making sure to check seeding depth within a few feet. 

"Don't plant 30 acres and go back and say, I've got to replant that," said Anderson. "That creates a problem."

When it comes to weed control, Anderson pointed out there is nothing in the American market for weed control. The biggest weed suppression with hemp comes in the canopy, especially if planting in a good, clean seed bed at a warm soil temperature. 

"The hemp is going to create a canopy that weeds can't out compete," said Anderson. "It's going to be the first out of the ground and create its canopy."

When harvesting hemp, drying and storing the grain, the post-harvest plan for hemp is "the most important aspect of having grain that is marketable," Anderson explained. As soon as the grain is taken off the plant, there is a short period of time to get the grain drying down. 

"If it spoils because it heats and goes rancid, you can't sell anything," Anderson pointed out. "It’s very important to have a post-harvest plan, because you have to have that in place otherwise, you cannot sell what you grow."

Licensing, registration

As processors wrapped up the first year of growing industrial hemp in Wisconsin following the implementation of Act 100 and begin looking to year two, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) extended the deadline for licensing to March 1. 

Melody Walker, the Pest Survey and Control Section Chief in the Plant Industry Bureau at DATCP, said the department heard that growers needed the deadline changed to give them time to find seed, determine where they wanted to grow hemp and how much they wanted to grow. 

Producers who grew hemp in 2018 and are re-registering for 2019 have to make sure DATCP has gotten their final production report and paid sampling fees in order for their registration to be processed, Walker said. 

First-time applicants need to make sure everything is complete on the license application in order for DATCP to process the application. 

"If there is something you don’t know — you don’t know where you’re going to grow exactly or there is something there that you just don’t have that information —  you can contact us and talk to us about that and we can help you get through that," Walker pointed out.

Moving into the second year of hemp growing, Walker said DATCP would like to have meetings of all licensees in spring to go over program requirements. 

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"For some people this might not seem that complicated," said Walker. "For others it might be complicated."

Walker said DATCP wants producers to know what the requirements are so they can meet them and increase compliance with rules. Producers need to distinguish between grain, fiber and CBD hemp varieties.

There are a number of certified grain varieties available and a lot test well below the required .3 percent THC level. However, there have been some problems with CBD varieties. 

"In face, we're prohibiting one variety from being grown in 2019 and that's C4," Walker explained. "That variety failed consistently. We want all varieties to pass, we really, really do, so we hope that growers will really work on finding varieties that will pass."

Growers should be able to get test results on THC levels from suppliers. "If they're fair to marginal, you might want to rethink that variety," said Walker. Soil conditions can create variability that could "push those varieties over and we don't want to have to tell people they have to destroy their crop."

Walker said DATCP is aware additional regulations are needed regarding product safety, labeling and laboratory standards. Laboratories want to be certified to test hemp and people who purchase hemp products need to know what they are getting. 

Other potential upcoming changes include possibly going to year-round licensing and registration which would allow growers more flexibility than a limited timeframe for applications, Walker explained. DATCP also wants more automation of licensing and recording. 

What if 2018 Farm Bill passes?

Future legislation for hemp in Wisconsin hinges on what happens at the federal level.

"That's why the 2018 Farm Bill is so crucial, that the hemp language stays in there and gets passed," explained Senator Patrick Testin, the author of Act 100. "One of the reasons we drafted the legislation like we did is with changes in federal law, we could also change our law."

Testin said state legislators are prepared to move ahead with Hemp 2.0,  "which is hopefully going to give even more clarity for our farmers and law enforcement, remove red tape and really make sure that we can utilize every single component of this plant and of this crop."

Currently, growers have to get a background check to grow hemp. Testin said this was necessary to give law enforcement "some assurance that growers aren't trying to grow marijuana in an industrial hemp field. We know that's not the case because they will cross pollinate the THC concentration."

If the Farm Bill passes and hemp is taken off the controlled substances list, the crop could be covered by crop insurance, according to Kurt Mansavage, with Rural Mutual Insurance. As a controlled substance, hemp is ineligible for crop insurance. Growers who took part in the pilot program could get coverage for buildings and equipment, but not the harvested commodity or seed before it's planted. There would be a bit of "a time lag" before rules for hemp crop insurance coude be put in place once the bill passes, Mansavage added.

Along with gaining crop insurance if hemp is removed from the controlled substances list, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would allow research grants on industrial hemp, explained Rob Richards, with WFBF who worked to helped the Farm Bureau in it's push to get hemp legislation in place. 

Changes at the federal level would require DATCP to change the definition of hemp, some policies might have to be clarified and the department would have to write and submit an industrial hemp regulatory plan to the USDA under new rules, according to Walker. "Overall it would be a good thing."

For bankers, removing hemp from the illegal substance list "could significantly change" the way financial institutions view this from banking customers that are engaged in growing, processing and selling of hemp products," said Scott Birrenkott assistant director of Legal Wisconsin Bankers Association. 

Having clarity on the federal level would allow financial institutions to consider hemp more from a business perspective. 

"[If] there is a specific and clear carve out for hemp, then that would be significant," explained Birrenkott. "That would go a long way toward mitigating a lot of the risk that financial institutions are looking at right now in Wisconsin to anyone looking to participate in the pilot program."

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