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Industrial hemp growing well in test field in Chippewa Falls

CHIPPEWA FALLS — As Haleigh Ortmeier-Clarke looked out at a field of industrial hemp in Chippewa Falls on Tuesday, she was impressed with how evenly the crop has grown.

Fifteen varieties of industrial hemp were grown this year on a test site of county-owned farmland near Lake Wissota, a few blocks east of HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital. The crop was planted June 11 on a two-acre parcel, and it will be harvested in the next 10 to 15 days, she said.

“We’re looking at what is the best option for growers,” Ortmeier-Clarke said. “This has been a learning year. We’re looking at everything we can to make this crop more valuable to farmers.”

Ortmeier-Clarke is a graduate research assistant at UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the Division of Extension. Industrial hemp is now legal in Wisconsin, and about 40 people attended a seminar at the field site Tuesday to listen to Ortmeier-Clarke and other researchers discuss their findings on how the crop is growing in Wisconsin. She explained that there are three different possible products from hemp: the fiber/stalks, the seeds in the flower and oils. Farmers would choose industrial hemp varieties based on which product they want to harvest.

The fiber-rich industrial hemp varieties are growing tall, with some plants topping six feet, looking more like a corn stalk than like a marijuana plant.

“This is good for fiber product, with the thick stalk,” Ortmeier-Clarke said as she examined those varieties. “If you want fiber, you want that tall plant.”

In comparison, the hemp plants that produce more oils are shorter and fatter, looking more like a poinsettia or a marijuana plant.

The state acquired its industrial hemp seeds from a producer in Kentucky. However, it has been more than 70 years since the crop could be legally grown in Wisconsin, so there isn’t a lot of data on which varieties will thrive in the state’s climate. Ortmeier-Clarke said that is exactly what drew her to joining this study.

“This is a unique opportunity to look at a crop that is new to Wisconsin again,” she said.

Ortmeier-Clarke said it is too early to tell if industrial hemp will be a hearty crop.

“It was a really rainy year; it’s been an odd year for any crop,” she said.

Bryan Jensen, another UW-Madison researcher, told the crowd about some insect problems they have seen with industrial hemp, particularly a bore that digs into the hemp stalk. However, there wasn’t significant damage.

“You can withstand some insect pressure in these fields,” Jensen said.

It is too early to tell what types of insecticides will be available in the near future to fight those bores and other insects, he added.

Jensen was pleased with the conditions of the hemp field in Chippewa Falls.

“It’s stronger than I expected,” Jensen said. “It’s looking good. They’ve done a really good job with weed management.”

Jensen cautioned that there still isn’t a strong market for industrial hemp, but more Wisconsin farmers are considering growing it.

“There was a big jump in hemp from last year to this year,” Jensen said. “It’s a crop that seems to be hanging in there.”

Carl Duley, Buffalo County UW-Extension agriculture agent, also has an industrial hemp test field in his county. The Chippewa Falls site is among four trial field sites across the state.

“It looks different than ours,” Duley said of the Chippewa Falls’ crop. “It’s not as tall as we have.”

Duley said he’s intrigued by all the possible products that can be manufactured from industrial hemp.

“I’m interested in the fiber and the seed, more than the oils,” Duley said. “I see a lot of future for the fiber.”

Duley told the crowd that industrial hemp could be susceptible to the same type of mildew problems that affect hops plants, but so far, it hasn’t appeared in any of their test fields.

“Hopefully we won’t see any of it,” Duley said.

Wisconsin was once a leading producer of industrial hemp, primarily for rope production, until it was prohibited in 1938. The Legislature reclassified industrial hemp from a narcotic to a commodity crop in December, making it legal to grow at both the state and federal level.

About 200 Wisconsin farmers tried growing it, said Chippewa County UW-extension agriculture agent Jerry Clark.

The hemp is doing well in the sandier soils at the Chippewa Falls site, he added.

“We’ve scattered these around the state to have varied soil,” Clark said.

The state law requires that any industrial hemp must remain below 0.3 percent of THC potency, and Ortmeier-Clarke is confident that the plants are below that level. If the crop reaches the THC level, it must be destroyed.


Facebook rolls out tool to block off-Facebook data gathering

SAN FRANCISCO — Soon, you could get fewer familiar ads following you around the internet — or at least on Facebook.

Facebook is launching a long-promised tool that lets you limit what the social network can gather about you on outside websites and apps.

The company said Tuesday that it is adding a section where you can see the activity that Facebook tracks outside its service via its “like” buttons and other means. You can choose to turn off the tracking; otherwise, tracking will continue the same way it has been.

Formerly known as “clear history,” the tool will now go by the slightly clunkier moniker “off-Facebook activity.” The feature launches in South Korea, Ireland and Spain on Tuesday, consistent with Facebook’s tendency to launch features in smaller markets first. The company did not give a timeline for when it might expand it to the U.S. and other countries, only that it will be in “coming months.”

What you do off Facebook is among the many pieces of information that Facebook uses to target ads to people. Blocking the tracking could mean fewer ads that seem familiar — for example, for a pair of shoes you decided not to buy, or a nonprofit you donated money to. But it won’t change the actual number of ads you’ll see on Facebook. Nor will it change how your actions on Facebook are used to show you ads.

Even if you turn off tracking, Facebook will still gather data on your off-Facebook activities. It will simply disconnect those activities from your Facebook profile. Facebook says businesses won’t know you clicked on their ad — but they’ll know that someone did. So Facebook can still tell advertisers how well their ads are performing.

Jasmine Enberg, social media analyst at research firm eMarketer, said the tool is part of Facebook’s efforts to be clearer to users on how it tracks them and likely “an effort to stay one step ahead of regulators, in the U.S. and abroad.”

Facebook faces increasing governmental scrutiny over its privacy practices, including a record $5 billion fine from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for mishandling user data. Boosting its privacy protections could help the company pre-empt regulation and further punishment. But it’s a delicate dance, as Facebook still depends on highly targeted advertising for nearly all of its revenue.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the “clear history” feature more than a year ago. The company said building it has been a complicated technical process, which is also the reason for the slow, gradual rollout. Facebook said it sought input from users, privacy experts and policymakers along the way, which led to some changes.

For instance, users will be able to disconnect their activity from a specific websites or apps, or reconnect to a specific site while keeping other future tracking turned off.

You’ll be able to access the feature by going to your Facebook settings and scrolling down to “your Facebook information.” The “off-Facebook activity” section will be there when it launches.

The tool will let you delete your past browsing history from Facebook and prevent it from keeping track of your future clicks, taps and website visits going forward. Doing so means that Facebook won’t use information gleaned from apps and websites to target ads to you on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. It also won’t use such information to show you posts that Facebook thinks you might like based on your offsite activity, such as news articles shared by your friends.

Stephanie Max, product manager at Facebook, said the company believes the tool could affect revenue, though she didn’t say how much. But she said giving people “transparency and control” is important.

Enberg, the eMarketer analyst, said the ultimate impact “depends on consumer adoption. It takes a proactive step for consumers to go into their Facebook settings and turn on the feature.”

People who say they value privacy often don’t actually do anything about it, she said, so it’s possible too few people will use this tool to have a meaningful effect on Facebook’s bottom line.


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Overdose numbers fall, but problem persists

Wisconsin saw progress in its campaign against painkiller abuse as opioid-overdose deaths fell last year, but a gathering Tuesday in Eau Claire emphasized ways to continue addressing the drug epidemic.

The state Department of Health Services released statistics recently showing that opioid-related deaths fell to 838 last year — the lowest level since 2015 — and emergency room visits to treat overdoses also declined.

“This is really the first true decrease we’ve seen since the late 1990s,” said Paul Krupski, the department’s director of opioid initiatives.

While Krupski saw the declining numbers as evidence that state efforts are working, he and others who spoke at the daylong event discussed the different challenges and strategies for addressing the opioid epidemic.

A crowd of 150 medical professionals, public health officials, educators and some state legislators gathered for the “Opioids and Our Community: A Collaborative Event” in the Davies Center on the UW-Eau Claire campus.

A series of speeches presented statewide and local information on opioid abuse before attendees spent an hour discussing ways they could collaborate to deal with the issue.

Jennifer Coyne, a clinical substance abuse counselor with the Eau Claire County Human Services Department, spoke about genetics and environmental factors that can lead to addiction.

Exposure to drugs and alcohol before age 21 — the stage in life where the human brain is still developing — is especially troublesome, Coyne said.

“If we can keep our kids from using drugs and alcohol, then chances of addictive behavior decline substantially,” she said.

Coyne also spoke about her own struggles with addiction earlier in life — 28 years as an alcoholic and a 4½-year prison stint due to cocaine conspiracy charges. Though not an advocate for incarceration for drug problems, she did say her time behind bars led to her epiphany about how she wanted to change her life and she did get treatment in prison.

State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, started the day’s speeches by talking about legislative efforts to address opioid use, a topic that hits home due to his 30-year-old daughter’s problems with drugs.

Previously convicted on narcotics offenses, Cassie Nygren of Green Bay is currently awaiting trial on several charges tied to delivering a mix of heroin and fentanyl to a pregnant woman who had a fatal overdose on June 2, 2017.

Author of numerous bills to address the state’s opioid crisis, Rep. Nygren said he wants to lessen the stigma of drug use so people don’t just dismiss it as people who made bad choices.

“We have seen overdose deaths from pretty much every age group in Wisconsin,” he said, including children and seniors.

It’s not just people going out to get illegal drugs, he added, but also seniors who are prescribed painkillers after receiving medical treatment and become addicted to them.

Rep. Nygren said his goal is zero overdose deaths, hoping the state can achieve that through addiction treatment, promoting alternatives to opioids for pain management and preventing people from abusing prescriptions or illegal drugs in the first place.

He admitted to the audience that the latter is the biggest hurdle, but also one that will produce the most success. Ways to improve prevention include encouraging physicians to prescribe fewer painkillers, improve mental health treatment and spot people at risk of addiction earlier in their lives, he said.

The state is also making Narcan — a drug used to treat overdoses — more readily available.

Local health departments have been buying their own supplies of Narcan in bulk to save money, but have seen some of their supplies expire due to the drug’s 18-month shelf life, Krupski said.

But in October, a statewide direct bulk-buying program will begin providing health departments with allocations of the drug — paid through grant money — which they can request, as needed, and get through two-day shipping.

“We’re going to prevent these providers from having to store thousands of doses of Narcan,” Krupski said.

Individuals who want Narcan handy also can get the drug without a doctor’s prescription at more than 300 pharmacies in Wisconsin — including CVS locations in the Chippewa Valley.

“The barrier that does still exist is you have to buy the drug,” Krupski said.

Doses of Narcan only cost a few dollars for people on government-run health insurance programs, but Krupski has heard that those with private insurance will have to pay $75 to $100 out of pocket for it.

While some programs are run statewide, Krupski said his department also provides funds to local departments so they can decide the best ways to treat drug issues in their communities.

“Our focus is still prevention,” said McKenzie Liegel, a population health service fellow for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department who coordinated Tuesday’s event.

The local strategy includes the Dose of Reality education campaign, drug take-back events, alliance groups that address youth and adult substance abuse, and a team of professionals that reviews overdose cases.

Gathering people from different professions together on Tuesday is also part of the preventative effort, Liegel said, so they can all discuss ways to work together on community problems with opioids and other drugs.