ONALASKA — Patrick McHugh has high hopes for hemp, not only for its monetary value as a specialty crop, but also for the value it offers him in his efforts to improve soil health on his family farm.

“Personally, I think it’s a great option to have a crop that’s not so dense,” McHugh said July 10 at an Organic Grain Resource and Information Network field day at McHugh Farms. “I like the fact that it’s a little more open and not shading everything out. If it’s not so shaded, you have a better chance to fight pests and fungus.

“I know one thing, if it’s going to be of the value we think it can be, I’m not going to grow it in the same spot two years in a row.”

The McHugh family started farming north of Holmen on a sandy farm John and Judy McHugh bought in 1973. John and Judy’s son, Patrick, and his family moved to their current farm near Onalaska in 2005. Over the years, the farm has undergone several expansions, and the family now runs more than 900 acres.

Patrick took over the farm in 2010 after losing John to cancer, and he continues to run the farm with his mother, Judy, and their family.

Several years ago, the family made the decision to begin transitioning gradually to organic production.

“We try to find ways to make quality food, we try to make the farm more sustainable and healthier for us,” Patrick McHugh said. “A few years back, I decided to try to be more diverse and not be dependent on one single product.”

McHugh has been using cover crops for more than 10 years, first on the conventional side of things and now experimenting with it on the organic side.

“I try to think of soil health being No. 1,” McHugh said. “I’ve learned here, in just my second year of being organic, how important rotation is to soil health.”

McHugh Farms is now growing about 100 acres of rye, wheat and corn exclusively for La Crosse Distilling Co. This year, he added hemp on 35 acres he is transitioning to organic and another acre and a half on land that is already certified organic.

“I try to never be a market-chaser,” McHugh said. “I try to think of soil health first and then manage the crop throughout the seasons. But you have to be able to market accordingly and hopefully find a good home for it. It’s always very, very important to know that you’re going to be paid for your crop.”

McHugh’s rotations include corn, soybeans, rye, hay and leaving some ground fallow for a year.

“It’s been a pretty consistent rotation that can still build some soil health,” he said. “Every second or third year, we can get a cover crop out there to increase biological activity.

“It’s not hard to tell out there with the earthworm activity in the years that I’ve seen growing up on sand with 1 percent organic matter and appreciating higher-quality soils. It looks like coffee grounds. That’s some of the best soil you can get.”

McHugh planted hemp from seedlings during the first week of June. He is hoping to use the whole plant for oils, grain and fiber. He also has a connection with a concrete company that would like to turn some of the product into hempcrete for building projects.

“As for disease control, most of the time with a lot of crops, I like to have organic matter, I like to have the crop back out there,” he said. “But with a high-intensity corp, high-dollar crop, I’d like to get the entire plant off there. That’s where your pathogens could carry over from year to year.”

The transitional hemp field was planted in sweet corn last year. After taking the corn off, he put several tons per acre of chicken litter on the field and planted cover crops in the spring before putting in the hemp.

He’s planting multiple varieties of hemp and will continue putting plants in the ground through July.

“We’re doing some testing. We’ll see what is able to be for production,” McHugh said. “Right now, with hemp in the early stages at a high value, even if you get 30 percent production, you can still be profitable.”

McHugh is planning to do independent testing to monitor CBD and THC levels. That will give him a good idea of the timing needed to make sure the plants’ THC content is below the 0.3 percent required for the crop to pass Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection testing.

“Hopefully, we can stay on top of it,” McHugh said. “You have to make sure to get your timing right and stay in front of it.”

In addition to the possibility of turning some of the hemp into hempcrete, McHugh said the biomass could also be turned into wood pellets for pellet stoves. He has plans to turn a shed into a drying facility and could bale some of the hemp for storage, he said.

“There’s a lot to think about for someone getting into hemp. It’s not just a crop you grow and take down to the elevator,” said Harriet Behar, an outreach specialist with the UW-Madison Department of Plant Pathology. “Hemp is not like, ‘I’ll grow it and I’ll be a millionaire.’ But if you take time and set up your infrastructure, you can do it well.”

“The value and the demand is so high right now because we don’t have the infrastructure,” McHugh said. “You can do everything right, but if you can’t get it to market, what does it matter?”

McHugh said both the transition to organic and growing hemp have presented him with new challenges, but that for farmers, challenges are nothing new.

“That’s why we’re farmers. We look forward to the challenge and new things every day,” McHugh said. “I’ve been doing it my whole life. I love it.

“It has its ups and its downs, of course, but if you can weather through it, usually rain makes grain.”

Organic resources

OGRAIN went live July 15 with the OGRAIN Organic Grain Compass, an online management tool intended to provide a 10-year projection of potential financial affect of crop and management decisions.

“You can plug in different numbers of acres and figure out costs and how it will help your bottom line,” Behar said. “If you are just in the transition to organic or you want to introduce new crops, you can see how that might change your bottom line.”

The OGRAIN Compass can be found at https://ograin.cals.wisc.edu/resources/ograin-compass.