Wisconsin In the Race to Reclaim Status as Nation’s Top Hemp Producer

Departments - Smart Start State Spotlight

Once the top hemp producer in the country, Wisconsin’s hemp program is experiencing a rapid growth of hemp farmers, strong educational efforts and major infrastructure investments.

March 31, 2020

Source: Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection

A century ago, Wisconsin’s hemp industry reigned supreme: farmers in the state grew more acres than in all other states combined, and it remained a top producer up until hemp’s prohibition in 1937.

Wisconsin didn’t pass a bill legalizing hemp again until 2017, putting it behind nearly half the country when the Agricultural Act of 2014 (the 2014 Farm Bill) went into effect and overturned its status as a top hemp-producing state. But it may be on the verge of a comeback: With an exploding number of hemp farmers, strong statewide educational efforts and major investments coming into the state, Wisconsin is poised to once again become a leading U.S. hemp producer.

The state has experienced a boom since its first planting season in 2018. In just one year, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) licensed six times as many growers and seven times as many producers in 2019. Brian Kuhn, director of DATCP’s Plant Industry Bureau, estimates the program will grow by 10% this upcoming season based on the number of applications at press time.

Wisconsin is sticking with its pilot program for the upcoming growing season, as several states have opted to do until the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) interim final rule takes full effect Oct. 31, 2020. “We were already moving forward with our existing plan for the 2020 growing season when the interim rule came out at the end of October. In order to have enough time to develop a new plan, get it approved and then notify growers of the changes to operate under the new program for the 2018 Farm Bill, we chose to wait to adopt a new plan until the 2021 growing season,” Kuhn says. “For our growers, our goal for this year was to try and make it consistent with what they’ve experienced in [the] first two years.”

Fortunately for growers in the Badger State, their transition will be minimal compared with those in other states. In late 2019, Wisconsin lawmakers revised the state’s pilot program with the Growing Opportunities Act and made it nearly identical to regulations under the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (the 2018 Farm Bill). Now, the only difference farmers will be dealing with is a slightly stricter enforcement of the 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) limit once the pilot program sunsets, Kuhn says.

Growing Resources for Farmers

Through this whirlwind of legislative change, the DATCP has worn many hats: licenser, enforcer, tester and educator. The department received backlash last year when some farmers in the South Central Wisconsin Hemp cooperative blamed delays in testing for crops that tested “hot” above the 0.3% THC limit, but several initiatives since then have taken some of the burden off the DATCP with the hopes of easing some delays.

The Growing Opportunities Act authorized the DATCP to hire three full-time staff members for the hemp program along with a third-party contractor to assist with testing. And over the past year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been working to help educate state farmers by building up its hemp program, which now has helpful online resources.

Among those resources is a cannabidiol (CBD) and THC testing sharing page, where farmers can submit the results of their private laboratory hemp tests, which are then compiled into a comprehensive report to help other farmers make informed growing decisions.

Another of the university’s web resources is its directory that helps foster connections along the hemp supply chain throughout the state, whether for buying and selling or otherwise. The university has published video series as well, which cover everything from planting to harvesting.

Farmers in the state also have a plethora of sourcing resources available, from the DATCP’s online guide to hemp varieties for different end uses to a statewide seed certification program through Wisconsin’s official seed certifying agency, the Wisconsin Crop Improvement Association. And in Milwaukee County, an innovative plant sourcing hub is taking form. The county is working on partnering with a contractor to grow hemp in one of its Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory’s domes, seven-story glass structures that currently host an abundance of other plant life. As part of the plans, a third party would lease one of The Domes to grow certified hemp clones to be sold to farmers to help with the facility’s operational costs.

As resources for Wisconsin hemp farmers continue growing, so too are their options for mitigating costs. Wisconsin is one of 21 states where farmers are eligible to participate in the USDA’s Multi-Peril Crop Insurance (MPCI) pilot program for the upcoming growing season, which insures producers against yield losses due to natural causes. (The pilot is running in all but two of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.)

In addition, in a recent survey by the Wisconsin Bankers Association (WBA), nearly 50% of bank respondents who aren’t currently banking hemp said they would extend services to hemp-related customers in 2020.

“The reality is that hemp is a very new and complex issue from both a regulatory and business viewpoint,” Rose Oswald Poels, the WBA President and CEO, said in a press release. “It takes time to work through these complexities. Because there is no one-size-fits-all approach, each bank’s approach and timeframe will be different.”

Accelerating Hemp Production

Like the rest of the country, much of the hemp focus in Wisconsin for the time being is on CBD. Most processors in the state focus on CBD, including a 46,000-square-foot processing facility that recently received a multimillion dollar investment from Grove Group Management.

Kuhn says 96% of the state’s hemp farmers grew for CBD last year, but that may soon change. Wisconsin Hemp Alliance members have recently asked state lawmakers to consider passing S.B. 817, which would dedicate $125,000 toward establishing a Wisconsin Hemp Fiber Innovation and Technology Accelerator in the Institute for Sustainable Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Their goal is to find innovative ways to create and sell hemp fiber products.

At press time, the legislation was slated to be decided on by the end of February, potentially re-launching an industry that thrived in the state a century ago.

“Everyone in the hemp industry knows exactly how important this first step is for fiber,” Wisconsin Hemp Alliance President Rob Richard told The Center Square Wisconsin about the group’s proposal. “As legislators look for ways to bring innovation, diversification and market expansion to Wisconsin agriculture, they absolutely should not ignore the long-term growth potential in hemp.”

Theresa Bennett is associate editor of Hemp Grower and sister magazine Cannabis Business Times.