Steve Acheson grew up near Campbellsport in Fond du Lac County, spending time with family on their farms around the area as a youth. He was a senior in high school when the nation was rocked by an act of terror on Sept. 11, 2001, which sparked his involvement in the military.
He served in Iraq in 2005, participating in more than 400 combat missions as a lead driver of an escort team. But when he returned from his service in the U.S. Army, he carried scars that could not always be seen. Along with numerous back surgeries, he also has post-traumatic stress after serving in Iraq.
For his ailments, he was exposed to opiates and other prescription pills — something that instead of helping him with his pain, actually made it harder for him to function as he continued his life after military service as an engineering student at UW-Platteville.
“That’s been an interesting battle to come home and deal with post-traumatic stress,” he said. “Really the only option that was provided to me was pills.”
As a student, Acheson was on seven to eight different pills, which left him feeling like a zombie, he said. He was about to drop out of school as he felt he couldn’t function anymore. However, it was at that time that someone behind him in one of his classes offered him cannabis, an offer that has changed his life for the better.
He has been able to replace all his prescription pills with cannabis and has successfully taken on projects to help the lives of veterans in his community and beyond. For four years, he, along with his partner, Steph, ran Peacefully Organic Produce in Waunakee, a training program for veterans interested in learning how to operate a community-supported agriculture venture or CSA. He also co-founded Wisconsin Veterans for Compassionate Care, a non-partisan organization with a focus on cannabis as an alternative to dangerous prescriptions for veterans.
And with the legalization of hemp in the most recent farm bill, and support from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in the realm of hemp, he is working with another partner, FL Morris, to organize South Central Hemp, a producer-led cooperative of organic farmers, activists and community leaders who are assembling resources, information and a community around a new opportunity to grow legal, organic CBD hemp in his region of the state.
“In 2016, I stepped away from farming and it gave me time to think,” Acheson said. “Legal hemp has reinvigorated me with the potential to do farming again.
“Growing one thing very well looks appealing to me on a personal level.”
In early 2019, the cooperative was incorporated in Wisconsin, with its founders living and working in Green, Lafayette and Dane counties. A board of directors was established and immediately began working on bylaws and membership components.
Founders of the co-op began attending workshops to learn more about the current atmosphere around hemp in Wisconsin and to ask questions. Some of the contracts they read were outrageous, Acheson said, with the majority of the risk going onto the farmer with little economic benefit back to them.
“We saw struggling farmers and the potential to add processing availability with hemp,” Acheson said. “We had a ton of interest and were being very intentional with the co-op.
“We had so many farmers come up to us and thank us for being in the room,” he added.
Producer membership will be open to qualified organic growers interested in growing and marketing hemp, working in collaboration with their neighbors to add this new crop into their portfolio. Farmers in south-central Wisconsin that are interested in growing hemp are encouraged to complete South Central Hemp’s Prospective Producer Member survey, which can be found at the co-op’s website: scwihemp.com.
The co-op is in its early stages of establishment, with Acheson stating that the next steps include gathering and processing information provided by prospective members. An unofficial “group buy” is being planned to save farmers money by collaborating with the co-op to purchase equipment, seed and other materials. Acheson aims to have these products available on their website for members to browse and purchase together.
“We will gain by organizing together,” Acheson said. “We want to bring back the idea that we’re stronger when we’re doing this together.”
Acheson has also been working diligently to research who the most reliable seed suppliers are and making connections with key industry people so farmers don’t have to worry about the legitimacy of some aspects of hemp. He has also reached out to potential processors as he feels processing was a “huge choke point last year” as Wisconsin had no processors to take this new crop.
While organic hemp has many uses, Acheson hopes to get the farmers’ feet wet with CBD in particular, so that when and if medical cannabis is legalized in Wisconsin, farmers will be ready to grow the best quality product and be competitive in a new business.
“I think medical is coming and I’m hopeful it’s got more attention, but I’m cautious to promise anyone a timeline or the program we want,” Acheson said.
But it’s certainly something that’s on the co-op’s radar, he said.