Hemp operation is a family affair for Watertown sisters

Gloria Hafemeister
Wisconsin State Farmer
Sisters, from left, Jackie, Leanne and Lynley raise and market hemp at the Watertown area farm where they grew up.  Behind them their children assist with the planting process.  They also help weed the fields and pick the stones.

WATERTOWN – Everywhere you drive these signs proclaiming "CBD oil for sale" can be found at convenience stores, coffee shops, health food stores and gift shops. But what is this magic oil and how do we know it is what the marketer says it is?

CBD oil comes from a crop known as hemp. More than one hundred years ago, Wisconsin was a leading producer of hemp with nearly 7,000 acres under cultivation.

While hemp has been recognized throughout the world for thousands of years for its medicinal value, in this country it had been a popular crop because of its use in fibers for rope during both world wars. 

Did you know that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag out of hemp; George Washington was a proud grower of hemp; Ben Franklin used hemp string for his famous kite experience; the Declaration of independence was drafted on hemp paper; the first Levi jeans were made from hemp.

The popularity of raising hemp dwindled in the late 1940’s but the biggest change came in 1970 after the hippies of the ‘60’s started smoking it and it became associated with marijuana. The government dealt the hardy crop its final blow by including it in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 along with its cannabis cousin, marijuana.

Then in 2018 the Federal government again approved raising hemp – not as a drug to get people high but for its high concentration of the well known cannabidiol (CBD) oil.  After that many Wisconsin farmers saw this crop as a possible cash crop. This year Wisconsin has seen a significant decline in the number of growers and processors, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, the agency that registers growers and monitors the quality of the crop.

The crop is very labor-intensive and growers need to spend some time testing the crop to determine the ideal time for harvest. When a grower determines through tests that it is close to ideal the state comes out to test it and give the go-ahead to harvest.

Organic take on hemp growing

For those eager to  learn more about hemp, CBD oil, and what sets some CBD oil apart from others, just ask the three sisters who run Pine Hill Sustainable Farm in the Town of Lebanon near Watertown.

The main players in the business are sisters, Jackie Phillips, Leanne Anthon and Lynley Gray. The siblings have been raising hemp on just a few acres of their Lebanon farm.  When the crop is ready for harvesting they contact the WDATCP to test it for quality and advise if it is at the right level.

All three are health care professionals who grew up on the family’s six generation farm where they shared their passion for holistic approaches to health.

They credit their mother, Carmen Groehler for their interest in adding hemp to the crops they grow. Raising hemp helped better align them with their positive experiences with alternative medicines.

Planting hemp is a family affair at Pine Hill Sustainable Farm at Watertown.  The family gathered recently to plant the hemp on a two acre field, fertilize with worm castings shipped in large plastic bags from a worm farm at Neillsville.

The women were encouraged by their grandpa Arnie Neitzel. Until he passed away last September he was their biggest cheerleader and voluntary guinea pig. They say he always had a positive attitude and open mind and encouraged them every step of the way. 

The main male doing the farm work on their farm is Jackie’s husband Jon who comes from a long line of “green thumbs” and has always experimented with a garden. He was experimenting with organic farming long before the word “organic” was cool. He gets help in the fields from his brother Nic, an Army veteran.

Jon is constantly researching, attending conferences and classes. Even though he doesn't give presentations on the benefits of hemp like the ladies of the farm, he is very educated on cannabis, its properties, and the health benefits.

Benefits of holistic approach to grow operation

The family plants the hemp in May or June and harvest it in September. The plants are placed in holes 8 feet apart to give them plenty of room to grow. During the months in between the entire family spends their days walking the fields, pulling weeds, monitoring insects and tending to each plant.

Hemp plants will get to be about 8 feet tall before they are harvested.  Before harvesting they must be tested for the proper oil quality and content by the WDATCP.

Jackie says they experimented with different soil additives to improve fertility and this year are using worm castings, placing a shovel full of castings in each hole before planting the tiny hemp plant.

“Since we are organic we can’t use toxic sprays if there are pests,” Jackie said.  “We need to stay a step ahead of what nature throws our way.”

Because it is so labor intensive, they started with just four acres. This year they rotated to some virgin soil on their parents’ farm and cut back to just over 2 acres. The rest of the farm land is rented out to a local organic grower.

Hemp includes a stem, leaf and flower. After they harvest the 8 foot stalks of hemp they hang the bundles in their barns to dry, similar to the way tobacco growers dry their product. There are hundreds of hemp strains and plants are male and female.

“We don’t want the male plants,” Jackie says. “There is better CBD oil in the female plants.”

The dry plants are then converted to crude so it can be further utilized in their full-spectrum products. The CBD oil that they sell comes with a QR code that can be scanned to view the third party lab certificate of analysis.

About five years ago they began transitioning the land to certified organic and today the entire 75-acre farm is USDA certified organic.

The sisters believe it is that certification that sets them apart from other hemp growers.  They also believe that their background in the health care industry and passion for continuing education puts them in a better position to communicate with potential customers and help to determine exactly what is needed.

They are proud to be offering high quality, locally grown and third party lab-tested products that are free from pesticides, chemicals, heavy metals, additives and fillers. This allows them to have complete transparency of the products they grow and recommend as they follow a “seed-to-shelf” philosophy.

Siblings combine talents, strengths

Pine Hill Farm offers full spectrum CBD oil, salves and balms, hand trimmed flower, essential oil infused rollers, room mist and pet CBD oil. CBD free items include hand sanitizer, pine oil infused from pines on the farm, diffuser jewelry, candles, farm fresh eggs and more.        

Jackie is the creative mind behind Pine Hill Farm. With a background in marketing, she has the business mind of the company.  As a Speech Language Pathologist with experiences in home health, subacute care, adults with brain injury, and school-aged children, she recognizes the need and understands the desire for alternative medical therapies from her patients. She creates the formulas for their wellness line and enjoys creating new products to enhance the diversity of the Pine Hill brand. 

The three sisters who are raising hemp on their family homestead are proud to be keeping the family farm going.  When they remodeled the farm home they found this inscription on the original brick farm home that had been covered up in later years with the addition of a porch.

“Right now CBD is an over-saturated market and there are many claims out there that just aren’t true. That gives the CBD a bad name," she said. "That’s another reason why we take the extra step of being certified organic and of educating our customers and working with them to determine their specific needs.”

She says there is also still some confusion about the differences between hemp and marijuana

”Our mission is to break that stigma. Some people are afraid of it because they think it is pot. It is a natural plant created by God and it’s been around forever,” she said.

Leanne has worked in the healthcare field for over 20 years and has experience as a Registered Nurse in Pain Management, Acute Care, ICU, and academia. Serving as a Navy Corpsman from 2000-2005, Leanne developed a passion for serving the military and veteran populations. She is currently involved in research as a PhD student that will contribute to the much needed evidence-based research surrounding hemp.

“Every person is different,” she says. “We all have a bio-chemical individuality.”

Lynley  is the artistic mastermind behind the very popular diffuser jewelry for CBD or essential oils. Similar to her sisters and mom, Lynley has a healthcare background and works in the occupational therapy field.

While COVID affected their business via delays in shipping and manufacturing, they say it also generated a consumer interest in holistic health options. Fortunately it has opened the doors for them to educate those seeking alternative health options to learn more about what CBD can be used for including pain, inflammation, anxiety, sleep and much more.