High interest among hemp growers suggests that Wisconsin is ready to supply the developing market, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection officials on March 13 told agricultural marketing representatives in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

On behalf of DATCP Secretary-designee Brad Pfaff, Sara Walling, Agricultural Resource Management Division administrator, addressed the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service staff during a listening session to allow input in advance of rulemaking for a national program to oversee production of industrial hemp. The session grew out of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, commonly called the 2018 Farm Bill.

Noting that almost 1,500 applicants are seeking licenses to grow hemp in the state this year, Walling said, “We are optimistic about the future of hemp as an agricultural crop, but we are in a ‘chicken-and-egg’ process. What comes first, production or processing?”

Wisconsin, like many states, is in the second year of a pilot program to allow the production of hemp. Under the 2018 Farm Bill passed last December, states may allow the production of hemp under a state program approved by the USDA. USDA has yet to provide guidance on what states should include in these programs.

In her remarks, Walling recommended that the USDA answer Wisconsin’s enthusiasm with guidance on developing a state program consistent with USDA’s expectations. In particular, Walling asked USDA to provide guidance on whether the USDA will allow private laboratories to conduct sampling and testing for THC levels in industrial hemp. Currently, only state- or university-run laboratories can do that testing, which assures that levels of the psychoactive compound are 0.3 percent or lower. The low THC level is what distinguishes hemp from marijuana.

After the listening session, Pfaff echoed Walling’s comments: “To support our farmers in taking advantage of opportunities in hemp production, we need to ensure we’re giving them clear direction. We need USDA to provide essential program clarification prior to the next growing season so that our farmers can invest with confidence, knowing that federal and state agencies agree on the regulatory program.”

DATCP will continue to reach out to USDA to encourage partnering with states to collect consistent data about hemp production for the National Agricultural Statistics Service, develop testing protocols and provide the necessary agronomic research to safely and effectively develop this crop.

Wisconsin’s industrial hemp program launched in the 2018 growing season with about 250 licensed growers, although many of those did not actually plant a crop. License applications rose dramatically for the 2019 season, largely in response to the new farm bill’s removal of hemp from the controlled substances list.

Pfaff also noted that the law enforcement community in Wisconsin continues to have concerns that must be acknowledged and addressed. Additionally, he said that anything the USDA could do in the rulemaking process to reduce the need for staff time would be helpful.