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Application numbers for the 2021 Wisconsin hemp research program are lagging behind numbers seen by the state's Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in 2019 and 2020.

Interest in hemp isn’t as strong early in 2021 as it was during the previous years of Wisconsin’s industrial hemp research program.

As of March 29, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection had received 698 hemp grower applications and 423 hemp processor applications. At the same time a year earlier, DATCP had received 1,391 hemp grower applications and 652 hemp processor applications.

And Wisconsin isn’t alone, with hemp program numbers declining in other parts of the country as well, according to DATCP Secretary-designee Randy Romanski.

“The number does fluctuate a little bit from year to year, and there’s a lot of reasons for that, but right now we’re seeing the numbers being down a little bit this year compared to previous years” Romanski said during a March 25 call with agricultural media. “Other states are seeing that same kind of thing.”

Industrial hemp is grown for grain, fiber and the phytocannabinoids like CBD. Thus far, hemp grown for CBD has been driving the growth in the industry, while markets for grain and fiber have been slower to materialize.

For the 2019 season, the size of the CBD market in the U.S. in 2019 was about $4 billion. To cover the entire CBD market in the U.S., farmers would need to grow about 20,000 acres of hemp for the oil, according to an industry study. The actual number of acres grown across the U.S. last year was about 115,000, Shaheer Burney, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at UW-River Falls, said during a hemp virtual field day last September.

As of March 29, DATCP hadn’t finalized 2020 hemp harvested acres reporting.

“When it was initially set up by the federal program through the 2014 Federal Farm Bill, the goal with this being a pilot was that we would see some of these markets develop as time went on,” Romanski said. “Obviously a substantial portion of that interest, at least on the front end, was the CBD components. I think the market is trying to find its way, and that is one of the challenges.”

The weather, especially in 2019, was a challenge for growers as well, Romanski said, with a cold, wet spring and rainy summer providing difficult growing conditions for the crop.

“That was a challenge for the crop,” Romanski said.

DATCP’s Hemp Research Program requires both hemp growers and processors to obtain one-time licenses, and register each year they intend to plant and/or process hemp. As part of the program, growers were required to destroy crops that test higher than 0.3% total delta-9 THC, as determined by regulatory testing.

About 15% of the total industrial hemp crop in Wisconsin had to be destroyed because it returned high THC levels during the 2019 growing season.

In late March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a final rule for the establishment of a domestic hemp production program. Wisconsin is continuing to operate under the provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill through the end of the year, DATCP is working to establish an emergency rule that will allow growers to take advantage of some provisions of the USDA’s final rule during this growing season.

“Now that USDA has published its final rule on hemp, we’re going to continue to operate under the 2014 Farm Bill version,” Romanski said. “So that gives us a little bit of certainty of where we are. We have to work through our emergency rule process, and we will keep monitoring the number of people that that are coming in.”

For 2021, DATCP has no deadline and will not be charging late fees for growers still hoping to apply for licenses.

DATCP anticipates publishing its emergency rule in May, according to a news release from the agency. In accordance with the federal final rule, the department’s emergency rule will provide a pathway for hemp growers to remediate their crop if an initial regulatory THC test identifies that the crop exceeds the regulatory limit of 0.3% total delta-9 THC. While the remediation options are limited to certain federally permitted methods, they do provide an alternative to crop destruction. This will help reduce the risk of being suspended from the program due to elevated delta-9 THC levels, which is not uncommon as growers continue to learn about hemp and evaluate its different varieties.

The new federal rule also caps negligent violations at one per year. In addition, sampling of hemp plants can now include the sampling of the top 8 inches of the plant, versus the top 2 inches.

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