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Farmers struggle with hemp grain, hang hopes on fiber, CBD

Associated Press

VIROQUA, Wis. - Farmers are questioning whether growing hemp for grain will ever be profitable in Wisconsin, but they see the potential in the future of hemp fiber and CBD products.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has issued more than 1,300 licenses to grow industrial hemp in 2019— a 22% increase from last year, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

But summer rains last year ruined about 20 Wisconsin farmers' chances of producing salable hemp grain.

Michael Fields Agricultural Institute executive director Perry Brown inspects an industrial hemp plant for signs of mold, decay and pests, while harvesting the quarter-acre for research at their location in East Troy, Wis., on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018.

"It just couldn't get dried out. It just rained a lot," said LaVon Felton, a Viroqua farmer who owns an organic farm. "So when we did get it harvested, we came up with a good product. But it tested too high for mold spores in the grain."

Felton said he didn't sell any of the grain he harvested in 2018 and that the endeavor cost him at least $20,000.

Even though hemp is a new crop to Wisconsin land, Felton noted he considered growing it because he thought it could help struggling farmers.

"The dairy industry is not what it was for many reasons. And the tobacco industry, we lost that 10 years ago," Felton said. "So for me this is a way to find another cash crop, another way for the farmers in this area to ... supplement their income."

Agronomist Bryan Parr said Wisconsin's climate might work better for farmers producing hemp fiber — once the market for it grows.

In this Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018 photo, an industrial hemp plant grown for research is seen at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wis.

"If it's not going to be conducive in Wisconsin because of our changing climate, it may not be the best crop to be growing in Wisconsin for grain," Parr said. "Or at least not until we have another market that doesn't require such high quality, food-grade production."

Hemp for CBD products could also prove lucrative, Parr added.

But farmers said the CBD market has its limitations.

Bob Pulvermacher, who farms part time near Lone Rock, planted 3 acres of hemp for CBD last year and harvested around 1,000 pounds of hemp buds with a fairly high percentage of CBD.

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.

"I've got a bunch of different shops that are buying it, but they're only a pound or 2 pounds at a time," Pulvermacher said. "So it's pretty slow. I mean it's steady but it's slow."

He said sells 1 pound for nearly $450.

Pulvermacher noted the risks around the new crop are no different than the gamble every farmer takes when planting a field.

"This is just another facet of the business, you know, it's another crop," he said. "And hopefully this one works and the other ones will come around and one of those will work some other year."