While this year’s five-fold increase in hemp farmers made it clear Wisconsinites are enthusiastic about the state’s budding hemp program, the growth from 2018 created some logistical challenges for the state agriculture department — specifically when it came time to test all the crops.
“I think we delivered very high quality customer service for the vast number of our growers and processors out there, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t potential for improvement going into the 2020 growing season,” said Sara Walling, administrator of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s division of agriculture resource management.
One challenge this year was securing enough staff to handle testing of crops grown by the approximately 1,200 participating farmers.
Before harvest, hemp plants must be tested to ensure they’re not considered “hot,” or that their levels of THC — the compound in marijuana that can produce a high — don’t exceed the allowed limit of 0.3%. DATCP does allow some variance beyond the 0.3% level, but any plant that surpasses the allowable threshold is considered marijuana and must be destroyed on site.
“As that plant matures, the CBD (cannabidiol) level increases and that increases the value of that crop, certainly for CBD production,” Walling said. “As that CBD level climbs, the THC level wants to climb with it, so reaching that happy medium is tricky.”
What’s more, each variety of a grower’s crop must be tested. Walling said crops were located in almost every county of the state and some farmers had as many as 10 to 15 different variants on site.
The state’s hemp program grew from just shy of 250 issued licenses in 2018, its first year, to more than 1,200 this year.
To adjust, Walling said DATCP reallocated 16 staffers to help take samples and brought on 10 part-time employees to assist. Nearly all the 2,200 samples collected were processed in a five-week period, she added.
Walling said about 15% of samples came back hot, up from 2018’s approximately 9% of hot samples.
“I can say there are certainly some people that were very caught off guard by the notion that they might end up having to destroy the entirety of a crop that they spent a lot of time and energy and money on growing,” Walling said. “There certainly are people out there who put the crop in the ground thinking it was going to be a huge financial boon that they needed and that didn’t materialize.”
Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc, said he hopes to see DATCP take advantage of outside inspectors this coming year to better manage the workload.
Kurtz, who lost his entire 33 acres of hemp for fiber this year due to poor weather, said bad conditions made for a difficult growing season for a lot of farmers.
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“It is a risk, there’s no doubt about it,” Kurtz said. “Until it gets established, until it gets to be a normal crop that we grow in this state, I do think we need to be a little cautious, but long-term I am very bullish on it. I think it has a lot of upside.”
The application period for next year’s program opened Nov. 1. Walling said more than 200 applications had been received in the first 20 days, which is fewer than she anticipated.
“I anticipate at least the same amount of interest as we did last year coming into 2020,” Walling said.
Farmers and processors may notice a few changes to the program in the coming year, following passage of legislation transitioning the state’s pilot hemp program to a permanent one. Gov. Tony Evers signed the bill into law Tuesday.
New rules allow participants to opt into a communication network to better connect farmers with processors.
It also codifies state practice in testing for THC. The bill would allow for a THC concentration of up to 0.3% on a dry weight basis, or one nanogram of THC per liter in bloodstream. CBD oil, a legal hemp product that can be consumed, includes small amounts of THC.
Walling said more updates to the program are expected ahead of the 2021 season, as the program continues to come into line with federal rules.
When passed, the 2018 Farm Bill directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a regulatory framework for state governments to follow, should they pursue a hemp production program.
Fed rules pending
The USDA unveiled an interim final rule on a proposed domestic hemp production program in late October, with comments accepted until Dec. 30. Final USDA rules are expected to go into effect in 2021.
Rob Richard, president of the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance, said one area of difference between state and proposed federal rules pertain to allowable THC levels. The DATCP variance allows up to 0.39%, while the proposed federal rule allows some variance but would be more restrictive.
“That difference is huge,” Richard said. “What that grower has to do is they’re trying to completely maximize the CBD percentage in their plant, that’s the value. As they’re trying to maximize that they’re watching the THC as close as possible, so this means everything to them.”