This spring, for the first time in about 60 years, Wisconsin farmers will be planting hemp — a close and sometimes maligned cousin to marijuana.
The number of acres will probably be minuscule compared with corn and soybeans, yet there’s interest in making Wisconsin the No. 1 hemp state in the nation, like it was in the 1950s.
Hemp was once grown here to make rope, clothing, shoes and even parachute webbing.
And worldwide there’s been a resurgence in hemp products including the seeds and oil that are ingredients in food and health products.
Jim Holte, president of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, says he’s ready to try a few acres on his beef and grain farm in Elk Mound, near Eau Claire.
He sees hemp as a crop that could help farmers when prices of other commodities, such as milk, corn and livestock, sink to the bottom.
“I believe this country is ready to go forward with the legalization of industrial hemp,” Holte said, and to get beyond decades of an “unfortunate misalignment” with its cannabis cousin.
Since hemp hasn’t been grown in Wisconsin in such a long time, and some of the products face legal challenges, it’s unknown how many farmers will seek a hemp-growing permit from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
State agriculture officials have a March 2 deadline to finish writing temporary rules for hemp production.
And those rules, based on a state law passed in November, will keep a tight lid on the allowable level of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — to barely traceable levels.
“The law allows only industrial hemp of the species Cannabis sativa, with the THC concentration of 0.3% or lower,” the state agriculture department said.
“Importing seeds into Wisconsin to begin the hemp program may require permission from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which could affect the time when production can begin,” state agriculture officials said Thursday.
Farm groups are at odds with the DEA over the agency’s classification of industrial hemp because, in some respects, federal law doesn’t distinguish between hemp and marijuana.
That’s even with a huge difference in the level of THC, said Ken Anderson, president of Legacy Hemp LLC, in Prescott.
“You could smoke a joint the size of a telephone pole, of industrial hemp, and it’s not going to do anything for you,” Anderson said.
Congress opened the door to hemp production again with the 2014 Farm Bill, but the DEA says that didn’t allow for non-FDA-approved drug products made from cannabis plants for human consumption.
One of those products is cannabidiol hemp oil, or CBD, which may have medical applications.
“At present, CBD is being illegally produced and marketed in the United States in violation of two federal laws,” Katherine Pfaff, a U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman, said in an email to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“It is impossible to list every potential product that might be made from portions of the cannabis plant excluded from the definition of marijuana. Therefore, DEA cannot provide an exhaustive list of hemp products that are exempted from control,” Pfaff said.
The agency says hemp products such as paper, rope, clothing, lotions and shampoos aren’t a problem under the law.
But farm groups say the DEA has overstepped its authority with cannabis-oil products, and that threatens a promising rural economic opportunity.
Just buying hemp seed for spring planting could land you in jail.
“Because the DEA has said interstate commerce of hemp seed and hemp is essentially illegal, a number of companies are worried about being prosecuted,” said Rob Richard, senior director of governmental relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau.
It’s easier to get the seed from Canada than to cross state lines, Richard said.
A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco is hearing a case brought by the Hemp Industries Association against the DEA, regarding the classification of some hemp products as a controlled substance.
American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, National Farmers Union and the National Conference of State Legislatures have asked that industrial hemp be declassified as a Schedule-1 controlled substance.
“To negate any talk that this is a left-leaning fringe issue, 14 current and former GOP governors have enacted hemp legislation under their watch — including Vice President Mike Pence,” Holte said.
It could be months before the court case is settled, and Wisconsin is moving ahead with its hemp planting this spring, albeit on a small scale.
On a recent cold, blustery night in Eau Claire, about 250 farmers showed up for a hemp seminar hosted by Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.
Some were probably just curious, Holte said, but others were desperate for options to become profitable again while milk and livestock prices remain low.
“I am pretty confident that a number of people will grow hemp in Wisconsin this year,” Holte said.