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Hemp interest lagging behind previous years

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.

For more information, visit https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/Programs_Services/HempData.aspx.


An old barn stands in the countryside west of Manitowoc in March.


Writers-notebook
Shot in the arm

The morning was unseasonably mild, and the parking lot of the church was packed.

I walked into the church where two security guards directed me to a queue off to my right, and there I stood, in line, 6 feet apart from the men standing before and after me. Everyone wore a mask, everyone seemed somber and abided by the rules, and we shuffled forward, deeper into the church, as if we were marching to Sunday communion.

The waiting turned me introspective. Of course, it’s all too easy to dive into the screen of my cell phone and avoid that introspection, that examination. But like billions of other humans on this planet, I’d been eagerly awaiting this very moment, the day when I would be able to roll up my sleeve and feel the needle push into my arm.

And so, I very consciously did not look at my phone. I looked at the other people in line. I looked at the workers, diligently processing our names and insurance and general health. I thought about everything that has happened since about March of 2020 when life as we knew it was upended.

Thought about those first weeks of the safer-at-home measures, when we still didn’t quite understand the facts of COVID-19, how deadly or contagious it was. Thought of my mom coming over to our house, just to say hello, to make some human contact, and how nervous I was accepting her into our home. Then, weeks later, when we decided as a family that we were going through the pandemic with my mom, and that she wouldn’t be alone, even if there was a risk of somehow introducing the disease to her.

I thought of homeschooling our children.

Of the laborious, frustrating, days of trying to teach two kids who barely listen to me when I tell them to pick up their rooms or throw their dirty clothes down the laundry chute. I thought about a concert that had been predictably canceled (Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers in Minneapolis). How excited I was to attend that concert with two longtime friends. I imagined what that might have felt like. Pressed in tight against one another, jumping up and down, eagerly drinking cold beer and shouting until our voices went hoarse.

Thought of the trips canceled and postponed. Thought of those weeks, when the roads were all but empty, when my world felt like a ghost town, when the shelves of grocery stores were bereft of beans and rice and other shelf-stable food. Thought about my dad in his nursing home, the workers there, how isolated everyone must have felt and the sacrifices they were making for my family. Thought of my dad with his now long, white hair, maybe the longest his hair has ever grown, in his whole life.

I stepped forward in line and someone handed me a fact sheet about the vaccine I was soon to receive, in that church, like a blessing.

Thought about the hundreds of thousands of people who have died. Thought about the doctors and nurses who held the hands of those fading away, passing on. Thought about the health care workers burned out and used up and demoralized. Thought about cities where folks came out to their balconies and banged pots and pans in celebration of those doctors and nurses. Thought about teachers, doing their best to help our children, even through shoddy internet connections and wandering levels of concentration.

I moved forward some more. Past prayers and thank-you notes posted on a magnetic board. Past darkened Sunday school classrooms. And finally, I was led into a little makeshift private booth, where a young doctor confirmed my identity, jotted some notes, and said, “Left arm, OK?”

“Yes, please,” I said, polite as can be.

The needle broke skin, I felt his finger push down on the plunger, and then I was directed to a sort of waiting area to ensure, I suppose, I didn’t have an adverse allergic reaction or the like.

Anyway, nothing happened, and although I was supposed to wait 15 minutes, I wandered off after five. Ran into my best friend from childhood who was marching his way toward his second dose.

“How exciting,” I said, and meant it.

For a brief moment, I imagined another reality, where neither of us were in that church, where there was no vaccine, where this disease raged on, for years, and I looked at that snaking line, winding through the church, some of that number of people dissolving away … I imagined people in my own life, the most frail perhaps, or the elderly … Saw them dissolving away. Then I shook my head and said goodbye to my friend, promising to make a date to get together soon.

Outside, the day was humid and overcast, and I slumped into my car. I had thought maybe I would feel joyous, unbound, utterly elated at the vaccine now working its way through my bloodstream. And I did, I suppose. But there was also a feeling of … wonder. Of gratitude. For having lived through something. A time in my life unlike anything else I had ever experienced or imagined. A time in which my wife and I sometimes talked about who would go grocery shopping as if it were a life-and-death decision. A time in which people I know and love holed up in their houses as if the world were under siege.

That shot in the arm … A reminder that when I can, as soon as I can, as safely as I can, I’m going to start the business of living again. Rather than simply being alive.


Politics-policy
centerpiece top story
Evers, Romanski discuss future of rural Wisconsin
  • Updated

Since the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying measures started over a year ago, unpredictability has been a constant, even more so than usual in the world of agriculture.

Gov. Tony Evers and Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary-designee Randy Romanski worked recently to address what rural Wisconsin and agriculture may be able to expect going forward. The discussion, which covered budget proposals and workforce issues among other subjects, was part of an episode of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s Dairy Signal on March 30.

Budget

Evers’ biennial budget proposal includes $43 million for Wisconsin’s agricultural economy.

“I’ve never seen the kind of investment in our agriculture infrastructure that this budget makes,” Romanski said. “It’s across the board. It speaks to the strength and diversity of Wisconsin’s agriculture industry.”

The agriculture-related portion of the budget is composed of multiple buckets, Romanski said. Highlights include building international and local marketplaces, making “strategic investments” for dairy and meat processors, and furthering investments toward soil and water, including for producer-led watershed groups and county conservation departments. Other initiatives include investing in farmer mental health and support programs and improving DATCP internal functions so they can serve as an effective resource for the agriculture industry.

“Our budget has things that move us into the future,” Evers said.

Romanski said that the way the budget is structured funnels the money primarily to the industry.

Romanski said that they’ve had an opportunity to brief legislators of both parties in both the Assembly and Senate about the ag budget, and so far, there has been a “productive reception.”

Outside of the budget proposal, state and local entities will soon be receiving funding from the recently passed federal American Rescue Plan. Evers said farmers and small businesses will again be on the receiving end of some of the state resources to help recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As soon as we get the final guidance from the federal government, we’ll be getting those resources out the door as quickly as possible,” Evers said.

Broadband

Expanding broadband access is also part of Evers’ budget proposal, with a $200 million investment in that area. His administration has dubbed 2021 the “Year of Broadband Access.”

Budget negotiations aren’t the only place that broadband funding is likely to come up. Evers said plans are for some of the funds that the state will receive from the American Rescue Plan to be used for broadband expansion as well.

Broadband access is a bipartisan issue, Evers said, and is important for Wisconsin’s economy and for schools because even after virtual learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic lessens, kids will still need internet access for homework.

Still, Evers cautioned that getting sufficient broadband to everyone will take some time, but new money is directed according to need and resources are being directed to places that have nothing first.

Workforce

Evers’ budget also includes a proposal to increase the state minimum wage to $10.15 by 2024. Currently, Wisconsin’s minimum wage matches the federal minimum wage at $7.25.

The $10.15 mark is lower than the $15 minimum wage that has been floated at the federal level, but Evers said he recognized that a transition to $15 would be “pretty difficult” for farmers and small business owners.

Evers said he was hopeful about the minimum wage but would have to see if the state Legislature will take that up.

“We do have to make some adjustments here going forward,” Evers said.

“I know there’s a need for an increase,” he said, and at this smaller level, he thinks it wouldn’t harm the rural economy.

Evers said the state is also looking at more money for start-ups, especially in rural areas, solutions for workforce housing, which is limited in rural Wisconsin, and ways to incentivize entrepreneurs to get into child care to help address child care deserts.

The Ag Education and Workforce Development Council had also been revitalized to “connect the dots between workforce, education, training and jobs,” Romanski said, and sign-up recently closed for the second round of the Wisconsin Agriculture Youth Council, which recruits high school seniors to connect them with DATCP and others in the industry.

Evers also said that he is a strong supporter of career and technical education at the high school and college levels.

“We understand the importance of building trades or any trades as it relates to agriculture,” Evers said. “They’re connected at the hip, and we’re going to continue to encourage that at the high school level and at the college level through the Wisconsin Technical College System.”

Ag events

With vaccinations ramping up and hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be under control, many are wondering when and how events, including agricultural events, will be able to come back.

“Everybody wants those things to happen,” Evers said.

Romanski added, “I think we all look forward to those signature Wisconsin events: county fairs, Wisconsin State Fair, World Dairy Expo. When you think about Wisconsin, those are the kind of things that kind of pop to mind.”

Romanski said he’s heard that planning is going on for those events. Evers said he has spoken with World Dairy Expo — which had announced that it was considering venues outside of Madison this year — about the importance of keeping that event in America’s Dairyland. On April 1, World Dairy Expo did announce that it will remain in Madison in 2021.

In general, Evers said they will continue to follow the science, and local public health officials will be making key decisions as well.

Right now, the state is at an “inflection time” regarding the pandemic, Evers said, and while vaccinations are ongoing, people can’t afford to do anything “foolish” with their behaviors that would put Wisconsin in a “bad place” again.

In that vein, Romanski urged people to get vaccinated whenever they can. As of April 5, everyone in Wisconsin aged 16 or older is eligible to receive a vaccine.


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