DRIFTLESS - In the first growing season since the industrial hemp administrative rule was released by Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, four local organic growers have taken on the challenge of bringing back this old American agricultural crop.
Farmers growing industrial hemp in Wisconsin had to apply for a license, and at the same time, register their intentions to grow or process hemp in the state. Applicants had to pass a background check and pay several administrative fees.
Congress included a pro-vision in the 2014 farm bill to allow states to conduct research pilot programs into industrial hemp production, if authorized by their legislatures. The Wisconsin Legislature passed a law in November 2017 that directed DATCP to write an emergency administrative rule. The rule sets up the regulatory framework for the pilot program.
That rule is called ATCP 22, and became effective March 2, 2018. The industrial hemp program it creates is based largely on those in the 31 other states.
DATCP inspectors will sample plants from each field and variety grown, and take them to the department’s laboratory for analysis. The plants can contain no more than 0.3 percent THC. Growers will have reporting and recordkeeping requirements, and were required to enter into a re-search agreement with DA-TCP.
Markets for hemp
In January, some area farmers attended presentations by Ken Anderson, owner of Legacy Hemp, at a meeting in Viroqua. Anderson discussed emerging markets in textiles, construction, personal care and food products for industrial hemp.
Anderson, who was instrumental in helping to get legalization of industrial hemp production in the state passed, already had grain production and processing facilities going in Kentucky, Minnesota and North Dakota, and now has built one in Prescott. This plant will process the organic hemp seed for inclusion in food products.
“We are also working on a market for the bast and hurd byproducts of the hemp grown by the farmers we contract with,” Ander-son explained. “We are in discussions with a company out of California that manufactures a hemp fiber board. Perhaps as soon as 2018, or else in 2019, we are optimistic that this company will give our farmers an additional market.”
Hemp is currently being grown primarily for grain or seeds, but is also well known as a fiber crop. The fiber industry in the U.S. is lagging behind the grain industry. Hemp also has a storied application in America being grown to produce paper.
“Textile grade fiber processing requires more infrastructure,” Anderson said. “I estimate that development of this sector, which requires more technology, is about six years out.”
Another group in Wisconsin is working on developing a processing facility for manufacture of CBD oil.
Cannabidiol, abbreviated CBD, is one of at least 113 active cannabinoids identified in hemp. It is a major phytocannabinoid, accounting for up to 40 percent of the plant's extract.
CBD does not appear to have any psychoactive effects such as those caused by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). A number of studies on CBD indicate that it may be useful in treating inflammation caused by a variety of conditions. Studies have shown that CBD has anti-inflammatory effects, especially in treatment of chronic inflammatory and neuropathic pain.
In addition, researchers at Ghent University in Belgium have developed a process that turns hemp into biofuel. Although the research is still in the early stages, and it would have to be followed by infrastructure development, ‘hempanol’ represents another exciting possibility for this crop.
When an organic grower signs on with Legacy Hemp, one of the services they receive is support from an agronomist. Locally, that agronomist is Bryan Parr of LaFarge. Parr himself is growing an acre of industrial hemp, but his reasons are for soil-building, and controlling erosion and runoff.
Parr said that locally, four farmers in Vernon County are growing the crop this year. At this time, he is not aware of any farmers growing the crop in Crawford County. Growers that Legacy Hemp contracts with are spread throughout the state, with the northernmost in Ashland, and the most southern in Janesville.
“From north to south, weather has been the primary challenge in this first growing season,” Parr said. “Our growers had difficulty in getting the crop in without excessive rainfall. Hemp, as a crop, generally doesn’t like excess water.”
He explained that the second most prevalent challenge growers have experienced is with planting depth.
“Our farmers are using a grain drill for planting, and the most common problem was planting too deep,” Parr explained. “The target planting depth is one-half inch, but because there’s not a lot of profit in small grains, the planters that can best handle the seed tend to be older, with less depth control.”
When asked about the cost of inputs for the crop, Parr explained that it would be similar to those for growing corn. Seeding costs are about $120 per acre, and fertility costs are about $150 per acre.
One important difference between corn and hemp is that hemp is typically not cultivated after it is planted. Farmers growing the crop conventionally, who have sprayed Roundup, are not seeing problems with weed pressure. Farmers using organic farming systems report challenges this growing season because the amount of rain we’ve seen has caused the weeds to keep growing longer than in a less wet year.
“One solution to the weed problem in an organic system would be to plant it as a row crop,” Parr said. “However, we’re trying to find methods that don’t require cultivation, because that is one of the major attractions to farmers.”
Parr said that planting into an existing cover crop, using a roller crimper device could be an option for industrial hemp. He said that conventional farmers already have a farming system in which industrial hemp can do well.
“The system just needs a little tweaking on the organic side,” Parr explained. “Farmers, particularly organic farmers, that plant hemp following corn are likely to have more weed problems. Planting after a legume crop like alfalfa has been shown to decrease those problems.”
Parr says he has seen more interest in growing industrial hemp among conventional farmers than organic farmers.
“Organic farmers already tend to have more crops in their rotations,” Parr said. “And with the prices for corn and beans so low, a lot of conventional farmers are looking for another source of farm revenue. Some describe industrial hemp as the ‘new tobacco’.”
Parr said that in addition to being able to use herbicides such as Roundup to control weeds in a conventional system, conventional farmers tend to have newer equipment and better on-farm storage.
“On-farm storage can be key, especially for the organic hemp seed being grown for Legacy Hemp,” Parr said. “The seed will be ground and used for inclusion in organic food products. The crop correspondingly commands a premium price, but the flip side is that quality standards are very high.”
If the farmer can clean the seed on-farm, then they have 12-18 hours to deliver the seed to Legacy Hemp’s drying and processing facility. If the seed is not cleaned on-farm, then the turn time is narrowed to 6-8 hours.
Parr said that he has heard about new markets for both organic and industrial hemp being explored. Some growers are selling their crop for the manufacture of CBD oil, which is used medicinally as a powerful anti-inflammatory medication. Others are exploring hemp for fiber, for paper and even for construction materials.
“One critical gap in the U.S. is to develop processing infrastructure,” Parr said. “The U.S. is currently one of the biggest importers of industrial hemp, but it all comes into the country pre-processed.”
Organic Valley has taken an interest in organic industrial hemp, and has a 10-acre trial plot on Kickapoo Valley Reserve land, just north of Rockton.
Parr said Organic Valley will hold an ‘Alternative Grains: Hybrid Rye and Industrial Hemp Field Day,’ at the location of their trial plot, three miles north of Rockton on Hay Valley Road, just off Highway 131, on August 1, 8:30-11:30 a.m. No registration is necessary.
Interested growers are invited to learn about the benefits of the two alternative crops in an organic system. Increasing rainfall makes it challenging to complete timely fieldwork. Hybrid rye (Brassetto) and industrial hemp (X-59) are two crops that don’t need cultivation once planted. Hybrid rye is becoming a popular, fall-planted, high-protein grain, and industrial hemp is now legal to grow in Wisconsin. This is a chance to see both organic grain crops.
Speakers at the event will include: Zach Biermann of Organic Valley, Claus Nymand of KWS Cereals USA, Tom Frantzen of Frantzen Farms, and Bryan Parr of Legacy Hemp.
Two farmers in the Driftless Area have launched into production of industrial hemp in the first season where it has been legal in Wisconsin since the 1950s.
LaVon ‘Spanky’ Felton is growing 50 acres on his rural Viroqua property, planted in strips in amongst his corn. The crop was planted on June 1 into ground that had been worked up with a moldboard plow, and seeded at 30 pounds per acre.
“I find that my planting seems a little sparse, and I’ve become convinced that the proper seeding should be more like 35-40 lbs. per acre,” Felton said. “The other challenge I’m having is that I planted my seed too deep using a grain drill. Next year, I’m going to use an older, spring-loaded planter to get it to the ideal one-half inch deep.”
Felton reports that he has had some problem with weed pressure. He thinks that hemp, perhaps because of its deep taproot, has suppressed some of the weeds, but has allowed the grasses to thrive.
“The key is to get it planted, get it established, and then you’ll be fine,” Felton said.
Felton also experimented with application of the organic fertilizer Chilean nitrate on parts of his crop. He says you can clearly see the difference between the plantings with the nitrate, which are much darker green in color, and those without which are more yellow.
“Originally, I used the 10/40/60 fertilizer on the crop,” Felton said. “But when I added in the Chilean nitrate, that really put it over the top.” He described the Chilean nitrate as “a little bit expensive, but highly effective.”
Felton plans to combine his harvest with a soybean head, which will lift and clip the tops. He is growing his crop on contract with Legacy Hemp, and growing it for the seeds or “nuts.”
“If we clean the harvest on-farm, then we have a slightly longer window of hours to get it delivered up to the processing facility in Prescott,” Felton said. “If we didn’t clean it, and left all the green plant debris in it, then it would start to heat up faster and we’d have less time.”
Felton says he views industrial hemp as a potentially lucrative option for farmers, with a high per acre earning potential. He thinks the crop can fill a niche in the area like tobacco used to fill, as a cash crop.
Another farmer experimenting with industrial hemp is Paul Fuenger of rural Genoa. Fuenger planted 35 acres on June 25, and says “it seems to be going well.”
Fuenger planted his hemp into ground that had been in hay the year before, and sees that as an advantage he has in this growing season.
“The plants grew so fast in that ground that had been in hay, it has really suppressed any weeds,” Fuenger said. “For inputs I used chicken manure.”
Fuenger plans to harvest his crop in the first or second week of October. He said he expects to receive the price of $1.07 per pound. This, he believes, will result in a net income of between $1,000-2,000 per acre.
Fuenger has this to say to other farmers that are considering growing hemp, “It’s a cash crop, like tobacco. With corn and beans not doing so well, why not try something else?”