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Wisconsin hemp: growing an old crop with new tricks

Throughout my year as Alice, I have promoted the diversity of Wisconsin agriculture as the industry’s greatest strength. America’s Dairyland is filled with cattle, mink, corn, cranberries and more. Now for the first time since the 1950s, we’ve added industrial hemp to the list.

 

I was still working as a news reporter in Eau Claire when the story of bringing back hemp hit the wires. We used black and white footage of the crop because that was the only visual we had for our television viewers. After making a visit to Monroe in 2019, I now have a clearer vision of industrial hemp.

 

The Wisconsin Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program started in 2018. Those who applied to grow hemp had to pass a background check and pay the required fees. Once in business, the crop could be used for fiber, grain, seed and CBD end uses.

 

Mark Hubbard of GroHub Farm in Monroe met with me to explain his business. He recently moved to Wisconsin from the state of Washington, but Hubbard had ties to Wisconsin through his father’s dairy farm. Hubbard said he saw the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and legislators listening to make good decisions for farmers which was a big part of why he launched GroHub in Wisconsin. The business has a license to grow and process hemp. Hubbard works with area farmers to process their hemp into cannabidiol (CBD) products such as lotions or tinctures.

 

Hubbard saw hemp as an opportunity to revitalize Wisconsin agriculture, and he isn’t alone. Nearly 1,700 applicants are seeking licenses to grow hemp in Wisconsin this year with more than 700 applications to process the crop, according to DATCP. We only had 245 growers and 99 processors licensed in the state when the program launched in 2018. Of the growers, 135 planted a crop.

 

When asked how they harvest, Hubbard said there is equipment available such as tobacco

harvesters and hops bailing equipment. In fact, they hang hemp to dry like hops and tobacco plants.

 

The industry is still finding its path in genetics and stability. Being a farm girl, I understand there are always risks involved in agriculture, but I had no idea what challenges stem from growing hemp.

 

To maximize the value of hemp grown for CBD, the crop cannot pollinate. Growers want to harvest the buds and flowers found on female plants, but if they are pollinated, those flowers will turn into seeds. The solution is to use only female plants, but how can you tell a male seed from a female seed? Hubbard said they can have nearly 1,200 plants per acre, but it only takes a couple of males to pollinate and damage a crop.

 

Their solution amazed me: clones. By cloning successful, female hemp plants, growers can guarantee consistency and gender. Clones can also help ensure tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels are at the required 0.3 percent or lower. Imagine the agricultural opportunities that can grow from this new crop for farmers, processors, researchers and more.

 

Wisconsin may be reviving an old crop, but our state will continue to diversify its industry through persistence and innovation to keep agriculture moving forward.  

 

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