After legalization, hemp advocates look to next steps

2017-12-05 | The Janesville Gazette

Dec. 04--EAST TROY -- Hemp cleared its biggest obstacle Thursday when Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill legalizing its production.

But before farmers can work the crop into their rotations, the state's hemp marketplace must first get up to speed.

"That economic supply chain is going to have to be developed once again," said Allison Pratt-Szeliga, the program manager at Michael Fields Agriculture Institute in East Troy. "Wisconsin used to have several hemp mills around the state. You could just bring your crop there, and they would start to process it. We don't have that anymore."

Learning how to grow hemp, having enough seeds for everyone interested in production, modifying farm equipment and building processing plants--the crop's to-do list is an extensive one.

Michael Fields is a nonprofit organization promoting sustainable agriculture through research and education. It is looking forward to learning more about hemp and becoming an adviser to interested farmers, Pratt-Szeliga said.

"It's been on our radar for a while. Industrial hemp used to be one of the No. 1 crops in Wisconsin," she said. "When people started talking about it again, it was always like, 'Oh this would be a really great research opportunity for us.'"

More than 30 states have already legalized the crop, so Wisconsin is not at the forefront of hemp production. But the bill earned bipartisan support and unanimously passed both houses of the Legislature.

Farmers are showing varying levels of interest. Some expect to be early adapters, while others remain skeptical, Pratt-Szeliga said.

Ken Anderson, president of seed company Legacy Hemp in Prescott, worked with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau to pass the legislation. He believes it won't take farmers long to overcome the learning curve and begin production, he said.

"Getting farmers to produce quality grain for us is not an issue. We have faith they can do it. We know they can do it," Anderson said. "The issue is getting grain into markets and expanding the market. Some people see that as obstacles. I see it as an opportunity."

He and Pratt-Szeliga are both waiting on the state's Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to develop hemp regulations. Then, work can begin.

It's possible hemp processors and hemp equipment flood the marketplace quickly enough for production to begin this spring. If not, it might take another year, Pratt-Szeliga said.

The final product can serve plenty of uses. Depending on which variety and which part of the plant is used, hemp can be turned into food, clothes, insulation, construction materials and more, she said.

As she talked, she held out her arm and showed off her shirt made from hemp.

She believes growing hemp for seeds might be the easiest way for Wisconsin farmers to enter the market. In an agricultural region dominated by corn and soybeans, it's the type of market they're accustomed to, Pratt-Szeliga said.

Now, crop producers just need a processing partner.

"I do feel there are people out there who are entrepreneurs at heart who are interested in different economic opportunities," Pratt-Szeliga said. "I'm sure some people will jump on this."