DRIFTLESS - It’s not often that you see all of the different advocacy groups in the farming community lining up behind a common issue. But it seems the opportunity represented by industrial hemp is turning everything on its head. Farmers are excited about another cash crop they can add into their stressed farm businesses that has potential to bolster faltering bottom lines.
After a season in 2018 with a few bold innovators struggling in the excessively wet season to grow an organic hemp grain crop, focus locally seems to be shifting to growing varieties suitable for manufacture of Cannabidiol (CBD), a naturally occurring compound found in the resinous flower of hemp.
As of March 1, 2019, nearly 2,100 individuals and businesses have applied to grow or process industrial hemp, according to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
“This is a dramatic increase from last year,” said Brian Kuhn, director of the department’s Plant Industry Bureau, which houses the hemp program. “We attribute much of the increase to removal of industrial hemp from the controlled substances act as part of the 2018 farm bill late last year. That removed much of the legal uncertainty that may have held participation back somewhat last year.”
To date, 1,405 have applied to grow industrial hemp this year. Of those, 1,244 would be first-time growers. Processor applications are at 692, with 636 first-time applicants. That compares with 247 grower licenses and 100 processors licenses issued for 2018.
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 legis-latures. The Wisconsin Leg-islature passed a law in No-vember 2017 that directed DATCP to write an emergency administrative rule, which set up the regulatory framework for the pilot program.
Now, the 2018 Farm Bill passed by Congress in December is more expansive. It allows hemp cultivation broadly, not simply pilot programs for studying market interest in hemp-derived products.
The hemp provisions in the Farm Bill explicitly allow the transfer of hemp-derived products across state lines for commercial or other purposes. It also puts no restrictions on the sale, transport, or possession of hemp-derived products, so long as those items are produced in a manner consistent with the law.
Crop with potential
A safe, non-addictive substance, CBD is one of more than a hundred “phytocannabinoids,” which are unique to hemp, and endow the plant with its robust therapeutic profile. Extensive scientific research – much of it sponsored by the U.S. government – and mounting anecdotal accounts from patients and physicians highlight CBD’s potential as a treatment for a wide range of maladies, including: autoimmune diseases, neurological conditions, metabolic syndrome, neuropsychiatric illness, gut disorders, cardiovascular dysfunction and skin diseases.
In addition to CBD, grain hemp is pressed into a nutritious oil, and many more healthy food grade uses. There is also potential to create a sustainable bio-fuel from this crop, and the fiber of hemp is being developed for use in domestically sourced textiles, building materials, paper, and so much more.
Farmers and veterans
In South Central Wisconsin, a group of growers are banding together to form a hemp-growing cooperative. The South Central Wisconsin Hemp Cooperative aims to grow the crop to be processed into CBD. The effort really took off at this year’s Wisconsin Farmers Union state conference, held in Appleton at the end of January.
“As far as I know, we’re the first group of hemp growers in the State of Wisconsin to incorporate as a cooperative,” said major organizer Steve Acheson. “Our focus with hemp is to develop a crop that will help keep family farmers on the land farming – a crop that can yield high profits on a relatively small amount of acres.”
Acheson is an Iraq War veteran that has been growing organic vegetables since he left the U.S. Army in 2008 after an accident that crushed his vertebrae. Acheson experienced high levels of pain, but since discovering the anti-inflammatory benefits of CBD oil, has been able to eliminate his other medications.
Acheson has had to scale back his organic vegetable growing due to his injuries, and has transitioned his energies into being an advocate. In addition to his efforts in forming the hemp cooperative, he has been active for years in a Veterans for Compassionate Care effort.
“My vegetable farming business, Peacefully Organic Produce, trained and employed veterans in how to operate a CSA, or community supported agriculture,” Acheson said. “The farm crisis and the veteran suicide and addiction crises are really delivering a double punch to me, and I believe promoting the medical benefits and farm economic benefits of growing hemp for CBD can help with both of those issues.”
Acheson reports that he was particularly shocked to learn that the rate of farmer suicides in our area actually exceeds the rate of veteran suicides.
Acheson reports that he had spent the last few weeks before the March 1 deadline to register with DATCP to grow hemp in 2019 on the phone non-stop.
“You wouldn’t believe all the people I’ve talked with and all the different kinds of questions I’ve been answering,” Acheson said. “So far, we’ve had a couple of meetings and we have 35 farmers that have joined our co-op.”
Acheson said that because of the March 1 deadline, the group had “put the cart before the horse,” focusing on meeting the deadline and getting the co-op incorporated. Now, they’re going to begin to focus on developing bylaws and production standards through further meetings with the group. The co-op will allow for both producer memberships as well as community memberships for non-farmers who are interested in the endeavor.
“We’re going to start small the first year, and our focus on an ongoing basis will be more on the number of farmers participating versus the number of acres in production,” Acheson explained. “We’re going to have very high production standards, with organic being just our baseline. We’re also going to provide an avenue to membership for farmers who are in the process of transitioning their ground to organic.”
In addition to their focus on the farm economic opportunity, and the medicinal attributes of CBD, the group also has a very strong environmental focus.
“We believe that organic hemp production can play a very positive role in helping to protect our natural resources,” Acheson said. “Farmers need a cash crop, and adding another crop into the farm rotation and transitioning acres into organic and conservation practices will have a positive impact.”
Acheson reports that USDA-NRCS, Badger RC&D, and other farm support agencies are very excited about the possibilities for industrial hemp and “stand ready to assist.”
Acheson expressed concern about all of the entities from out of state that are angling to sell hemp seed varieties into Wisconsin.
“My job right now is vetting seed suppliers for the group,” Acheson said. “In the first year, we’re going to experiment with a variety of different seeds to see what works the best for our growers.”
One of the main benefits to cooperative membership will be in-group purchasing of seeds, inputs and infrastructure upgrades.
For more information on the co-op, go to www.scwihemp.com