DARLINGTON – The Multi-Purpose Building outside the city of Darlington was full on Friday morning, Aug. 9 of those who are either growing industrial hemp, helping with the process or curious about what industrial hemp is.
It was only last year that industrial hemp became legal in Wisconsin again. Wisconsin used to be the leading producer of hemp during the early 1940s. During World War II, hemp was used to make rope and at one point Wisconsin boasted 42 hemp mills across the state.
From the beginning being grown by farmers in 1917, hemp grew well in Wisconsin’s climate. Then in 1970, industrial hemp got lumped into the federal Controlled Substances Act and became a Schedule I drug.
Hemp was introduced back into the farming industry in Wisconsin through the 2014 Federal Farm Bill. Industrial hemp started being planted again in May 2018 with pilot programs being regulated by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Production (DATCP).
As part of law enforcement, Lafayette County Sheriff Reg Gill, spoke at the meeting on Friday clearing up any misconceptions people might have about the discussion going on in Lafayette County right now concerning legalizing marijuana.
“Just to assure you, industrial hemp is not what we are concerned about. We are very concerned with the legalization that is coming just south of the border and that we will see it here. We are trying to do what we can do to prevent that from happening based on information I have received from several Colorado sheriffs,” Sheriff Gill stated.
The only issues law enforcement were concerned about with hemp was an issue with theft when farmers are harvesting the plants. He was informed the plants could be worth quite a bit of money and he didn’t want their plants being stolen during harvest time.
Sheriff Gill is alarmed that the state has not shared any information regarding industrial hemp with him as a law enforcement officer and what to do when a farmer is transporting their product in a vehicle since marijuana plants and hemp are hard to differentiate.
There are 463 licensed acres in Lafayette County this year. It is unclear what types of hemp were planted but Lafayette County UW-Extension Agriculture Educator Joshua Kamps believes that many of the fields were planted with hemp that will be harvested for CBD oil.
CBD or cannabidiol is a chemical compound found in the cannabis plant, made up of eight major cannabinoid acids. It can be made into oil products that create a feeling of relaxation. It comes from the highest concentrations of CBDA or cannabidiolic acid found on the trichomes of an unpollinated female flower.
Harvesting the plant usually begins in mid-September to mid-October. Farmers need to contact DATCP 30 days before harvesting so they can test the plants for THC. The legal definition of hemp is that it must contain 0.3 percent THC or less.
There is no exact science as to when a hemp plant needs to be harvested. When harvesting for CBD oil, you want to wait until the CBD levels are high but that can also mean the THC levels can also be high. According to Melody Walker, DATCP Pest Survey & Control Section Chief, if the plant tests higher than 0.3 percent of THC, it has only one more chance to test lower or the entire crop has to be destroyed.
“Right now there are no other options for the crop that fails, that are nondestructive,” Walker stated. “We will have to wait for options and guidelines from the federal government in the 2018 Federal Farm Bill.”
Not only do farmers have to deal with THC levels in their hemp, there are other evasive diseases and insects that have been causing damage to the crop. Leah Sandler, a Research Agronomist at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy stated that farmers have been dealing with Eurasian hemp bore, cannabis aphid and flea beetle infesting the crop. Unfortunately, pesticides cannot be used on hemp because the Environmental Protection Agency does not have data on the plant to know exactly what pesticide residue levels are safe on hemp products, particularly those intended for human consumption.
This year has been very humid and wet. Diseases such as downy mildew have been found on plants in Lafayette County. Sandler suggested the ability to keep the plants less wet with drip irrigation could help lessen those issues.
Deer, rabbits, mice, and ground squirrels aren’t the only pests that can wreak havoc.
“People can also be pests. Make sure to fence your field and put up a sign, letting people know what you growing,” Sandler said.
When the hemp plants are finally popping out of the ground, farmers need to keep an eye out for any male plants and make sure to get rid of them as soon as possible. Once plants become pollinated, the CBD in the plant drops extremely low. Wild or rogue hemp, also known as ditch weed, can cause issues with pollination as well. Wild hemp drops its pollen all throughout the summer. Sometimes pollen from male plants can travel up to 10 miles at the very extreme end if there is a storm.
Shelby Ellison, a faculty member in the Department of Horticulture at UW-Madison and working with industrial hemp research and education, said only plants in the cannabis family can pollinate other cannabis plants.
“Pollen could be a problem. Neighbors need to communicate with each other to let them know what they are planting and where. It is a risk to the growers,” Ellison said.
Different type of seed can determine if the crop will have male plants. Purchasing a non-feminized seed will give you a fifty percent chance of having some males. An all feminized seed will have all females and cloned seeds should have all females because it is from the female plant. If there are any males in the crop, they must be caught before they start flowering to be sure the pollen has not released and then moved away from the crop and burned.
In 2018, 300 samples were taken from hemp crop in Wisconsin with 21 failing, each of a different variety. Only one variety of hemp called C4 failed everywhere.
“There are still so many questions right now, there is no guarantee for certain on what varieties of seed is the best,” Ellison added.
Most of the information shared at the meeting was educated guesses, on when to harvest, what type of strain is the best, how to prevent pollination, and so on. Even though Wisconsin used to be the leading state in hemp production, the state is starting over. Wisconsin has seven times the licenses from 2018. There are 1,240 growers in Wisconsin with 16,100 registered acres. There were only 4,000 reported acres planted this year, which goes to show the newness of this crop.
Hemp production has been growing exponentially everywhere. Kentucky has increased its production 162% in registered acres since 2018. Colorado currently has about 80,000 outdoor acres licensed to grow hemp, which is up 562% from 2017. Oregon has a more than 1,300% increase of outdoor licensed acres from 2017.
If the market becomes saturated, prices could drop dramatically. It all depends on the demand of the product and laws being passed in the senate that could allow CBD to be used in food products. Ellison and Sandler hinted that the best things to do as farmers is grow the best crop possible, negotiate contracts with processers ahead of time and sit on the crop until the market turns.
To learn more about hemp and what you need to do to start your own hemp crop, go to datcp.wi.gov and search for “hemp”.