Growing hemp, seeding a market for farmers and consumers

“Hemp for victory” once was a rallying cry in the United States, back when Wisconsin dominated the hemp industry.

The market for the 12-foot-tall plants was strong a century ago and reached its height during World War II, when Wisconsin led the nation in producing hemp for rope and twine. Growers in Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Dodge and Racine counties supplied the crop, and a mill owner in Waupon held the title of “America’s Hemp King.”

What’s left of the glory?

The cultivation of hemp in Wisconsin slowed dramatically with the development of synthetic fiber, but its death knell came in 1970. That’s when the federal government classified any amount of THC — a chemical compound found in both hemp and pot — as an illegal substance, thus killing the hemp industry. But hemp may soon make a comeback.


The Agricultural Act of 2014, which President Barack Obama signed Feb. 7, 2014, contained a so-called “Hemp Amendment,” which allows states to work with higher-education research institutions to create programs for the growth, cultivation and marketing of industrial hemp. With the amendment, the federal government created a definition of industrial hemp so that it would not be confused with its cousin — marijuana.

To capitalize on the Hemp Amendment, a state’s statutes must allow for hemp farming.

Kentucky has become a leader on that front. Also, some farmers in Colorado started harvesting hemp in 2013, followed a year later by farmers in Vermont and then farmers in Oregon last winter.

North Carolina is one of the most recent states to join the movement, enacting a law in October that says, “It is in the best interest of the citizens … to promote and encourage the development of an industrial hemp industry in the state in order to expand employment, promote economic activity and provide opportunities to small farmers for an environmentally sustainable and profitable use of crop lands that might otherwise be lost to agricultural production.”

However, Wisconsin is not a hemp player.

Not yet anyway.


It’s unlikely the state will produce another hemp king or queen, but Wisconsin could become a significant grower of the potentially big-money crop.

“The 2014 Farm Bill gave states the authority to begin the process of legalizing industrial hemp,” said Wisconsin Rep. Dave Considine, a Democrat from Baraboo. “Now we’re looking to get something passed and get something going. … We’re vastly behind other states in the Midwest.”

In the 2015–16 session, Considine introduced a bill to create a research-based hemp farming program in Wisconsin. The bill died in committee, but he plans to reintroduce the legislation in the next session.

“A lot of people know of industrial hemp as a source of fiber, but that is not all by any means,” Considine said. “For one, it is an extremely popular source of Omega-3. It’s an amazing source of really good fatty acids that we need in our diet.”

Considine’s bill would create a licensing program under the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and in partnership with research institutions. The license holders would plant, cultivate, grow, harvest, process, possess and deliver industrial hemp — Cannabis sativa with no more than 0.3 percent THC.

“What the bill does is allow a university to come up with research. The first step is to make sure we have the right team to grow industrial hemp,” said the Democrat, who represents the 81st Assembly District in western Sauk County.

“I have a very strong agricultural district,” Considine said. “Really productive land and people doing a lot of good things.”

He noted the district has a number of farmers interested in “alternative cropping” and emphasized Wisconsin once was the “No. 1 producer of hemp.”

The bill didn’t get a hearing in the session that ended in March, yet the proposal would seem to have wide appeal. National polls show support for such measures among Republicans and Democrats, farmers and hippies, conservationists and corporations, Libertarians and Greens, city dwellers and country folk.

Considine said when he reworks the bill for re-introduction, he plans to build grassroots support, as well as line up organizational backing.

“I’m committed to bringing it back,” he said. “I’m really hoping for the good of our state and the good of our economy that we can get moving.”

Key to the drive is securing support from the state Farm Bureau Federation.

Already Considine has the backing of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which has a policy stating the organization “joins all major agricultural associations in Wisconsin in supporting legislation to permit research and test plots in Wisconsin.”


Meanwhile, pending in Congress is comprehensive legislation to legalize industrial hemp farming in the United States by amending the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act so that it will not include industrial hemp.

Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Republicans Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced the bill in the Senate, while Republican Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Democrat Jared Polis of Colorado introduced the House measure.

Polis has said he’s hopeful Congress will build on the Hemp Amendment and pass the Industrial Hemp Farming Act “to allow this historical American crop to once again thrive on our farmlands.”

Without passage, farmers still risk being targeted by federal authorities.

Last October, the Drug Enforcement Administration entered the sovereign lands of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and destroyed a crop of about 30,000 plants. The tribe had legalized the growing of low-THC non-psychotropic hemp in May 2015, as provided for under the 2014 Farm Bill, and maintains the DEA improperly destroyed the crop in the raid.

The U.S. Attorney’s office said the DEA executed federal search warrants on “a large marijuana growing operation on tribal land,” according to a report published by the Associated Press last October.

Since then, the Menominee Nation has filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge in Milwaukee to uphold the tribe’s right to grow industrial hemp. In February, the tribe filed a motion for summary judgment.

“This is a straightforward legal question regarding the interpretation of federal law and we believe the court will decide this matter expediently,” Joan Delabreau, the tribe’s chairwoman, stated in a news release. “We are confident that the Farm Bill provisions require the federal government to recognize the Menominee Nation’s rights to cultivate industrial hemp.”

In another case, a federal judge in late March lifted an injunction prohibiting a South Dakota tribal member from producing industrial hemp. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Viken observed a “shifting legal landscape” on industrial hemp since the injunction was filed more than a decade ago.

However, Viken’s order was a narrow ruling and did not resolve the question of whether the Farm Bill allows for growing hemp on Pine Ridge Indian land.

As legislative and law enforcement actions multiply, here are some key facts about hemp:

• Hemp and marijuana are of the same plant species — Cannabis sativa — but the two plants are not bred and cultivated in the same way. The level of THC is much, much lower in hemp than in pot. Hemp can’t produce a high, but it can be used to make a handsome shirt or provide nutrition.

• Hemp stalks produce two types of fiber, according to Vote Hemp, a nonprofit advocacy organization. The outer bast fiber can be processed into long strands and the inner woody core can be processed into chips.

• The fiber is durable and makes for comfortable and colorfast textiles. It is used in composites or can replace plastics or fiberglass in molded products. The fiber also can be used to make building insulation or paper, while the inner core can be used to make animal bedding or nitrogen-absorbent fertilizer. The stalk even holds promise as alternative fuel.

Hemp fiber is durable and makes for comfortable and colorfast textiles.
Hemp fiber is durable and makes for comfortable and colorfast textiles.

• The hemp seed — a tiny nut that consists of a meaty inner core and a hull — has use as birdseed and, toasted, as a human snack. But broader uses involve dehulling the seed or crushing the seed for oil, because the inner core contains two essential fatty acids — Omega-3 and Omega-6 — as well as proteins.

Advocates tout the benefits of hemp seed oil supplements, the culinary value of hemp oil and the cosmetic applications. Even the protein-rich leftover hemp meal has value and is used for animal feed as well as high-protein powders and flours for human consumption.

The U.S. market for hemp is about $450 million to $600 million a year. But with few exceptions, U.S. growers are not profiting.
The U.S. market for hemp is about $450 million to $600 million a year. But with few exceptions, U.S. growers are not profiting.

The U.S. market for hemp is about $450 million to $600 million a year. But with few exceptions, U.S. growers are not profiting. There is no large-scale industrial hemp production in the U.S. and the U.S. market is dependent on imports for finished hemp products and hemp ingredients. About two dozen other countries export hemp to the United States, including Britain, France, Germany, Spain — and especially Canada. But the U.S. production lag may be about to change.


Marching in Milwaukee, 420ing in Madison

Plant the date: The sixth annual Milwaukee Marijuana March assembles at 2 p.m. May 7 at Kilbourn Park, 2300 N. Bremen St.

A Facebook event page indicated nearly 700 marchers plan to attend the event hosted by Legalize Wisconsin and the Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Participants plan to gather in the park at 2 p.m. and march at 4 p.m. Before the march, state Rep. Melissa Sargent, a legislative leader in the effort to decriminalize and legalize marijuana, will address the crowd. Medical marijuana patient Trevor James Sand and daughter Erica also are set to make comments.

The event commemorates Global Marijuana March Day.

Action comes earlier in Madison, where the fourth annual Madison 420 Festival takes place at 4:20 p.m. on April 22 at the Brinklounge, 701 E. Washington Ave.

Madison NORML and Madison Hempfest present the celebration, featuring The Grasshoppers jamrock band, The Northern Pines Band, Nuggernaut, The Material Boys, Mudroom, Bathtub Spring, The Lower 5th, Gin Mill Hollow, The Woods, Gary David and the Enthusiasts, Deteourious, Flowpoetry and Mission, a Jerry Garcia tribute band.

The event is a benefit for the Madison chapter of NORML.

Both events have at least a bit to celebrate. For instance, Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin pitched multiple reform bills in the 2015–16 session, including a legalization measure authored by Sargent and decriminalization legislation introduced by state Rep. Mandela Barnes and Sen. Chris Larson — all Democrats.

To date, marijuana reform in Wisconsin has taken place mostly at the local level, with cities such as Madison and Milwaukee relaxing penalties for people found in possession of small amounts of pot.

To date, marijuana reform in Wisconsin has taken place mostly at the local level, with cities such as Madison and Milwaukee relaxing penalties for people found in possession of small amounts of pot.
To date, marijuana reform in Wisconsin has taken place mostly at the local level, with cities such as Madison and Milwaukee relaxing penalties for people found in possession of small amounts of pot.

Twenty states have enacted laws to stop jailing people for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Also, voters in the District of Columbia and four states — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — have approved taking marijuana production and sales off the criminal market and instead regulating and taxing the production and retailing of pot. However, marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

A national Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released March 25 found about 61 percent of those surveyed support legalizing marijuana. Most said they wanted to limit legalization to medical use or place restrictions on the amounts that can be purchased for recreational use.

— Lisa Neff