Hemp businesses on the rise in Wisconsin, lawmaker says

Hemp-related businesses are on the rise in Wisconsin, following the state’s first growing season for the crop in more than 60 years.

That’s according to Sen. Patrick Testin, who touted his recently introduced hemp bill yesterday before an audience of about 200 bankers, as part of the Wisconsin Bankers Association’s Capitol Day event.

The Stevens Point Republican co-authored the bipartisan bill with input from DATCP as well as farming groups including the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance. He says the bill would align the state’s hemp pilot program with the recent federal farm bill. It also includes a “truth in labeling” provision to give processors, retailers and consumers more peace of mind about the products they’re buying or selling.

“I think the legislation that we have introduced is going to make this program more user-friendly; it’s going to open up even more doors,” Testin said. “This is really about opportunities for Wisconsin farmers, manufacturers, as well as our financial institutions. I’m hoping you guys get some customers out of this.”

Testin told WisBusiness.com the bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions. He said it’s likely to get a public hearing sometime next month.

As the hemp legislation proceeds through the Legislature, companies that deal with hemp are planning expansions and adding jobs, building on the enthusiasm seen for last year’s growing season. After the pilot was announced, DATCP was inundated with requests about growing and processing hemp.

Last year’s harvest didn’t exactly live up to that enthusiasm, according to Testin, due to grower inexperience, wet conditions and other factors.

Still, businesses are popping up all over the state that aim to capitalize on the opportunity hemp represents.

“I can even say here in Wisconsin, there has already been job development,” said Jennifer Heaton-Amrhein, a spokeswoman for DATCP. “I can’t but a number to it, [but] private labs are being created, existing private labs are expanding their services, retail stores are opening — there’s all sorts of jobs that are already being created here.”

In the 24th Senate district, which Testin represents, he’s seeing a number of new companies related to hemp being created. In the past year and a half, he says about seven stores selling CBD or other hemp-derived products have opened in the Stevens Point area.

“And I know there’s a lot more that extend beyond that going into Wisconsin Rapids, Tomah, Sparta — all around the 24th Senate district. And that’s one district,” he said. “I know there have been stories like that all across the state. That’s why I’m really excited about this.”

Testin said his bill would make changes to the state’s hemp pilot program, which was created under a state law passed in 2017 that followed the 2014 Farm Bill, which enabled states to grow hemp through agricultural pilot programs.

“To be completely honest, in 2017, a lot of us when we were working on this law, we were just kinda flying by the seat of our pants,” he said.

He said the bill’s authors included some provisions that “probably hindered” the growth of the program. But he says the new legislation would make fixes to the pilot program, based on feedback from growers and producers “on what worked and what didn’t work.”

“Year one was great; year two is going to be even better,” Testin said. “What I’m really excited about is year three. That is when I think we’re really going to see this program explode.”

According to Heaton-Amrhein, the pilot program has no limit on the number of licensees, or on the acreage growers can use for hemp. Participants have to inform the state how much they intend to grow beforehand, and must report back again at the end of the harvest.

Hemp is mainly differentiated from its psychoactive cousin, marijuana, by the amount of THC present. While some cannabis strains sold in legal states can have as much as 25 percent THC, hemp is restricted to 0.3 percent.

In Wisconsin, Heaton-Amrhein said “very, very few” producers failed to comply with that restriction. And she says those that did weren’t trying to grow an illegal crop.

She said DATCP tested 295 samples from 135 growers, and only 21 samples had greater than 0.3 percent THC.

“Of those that failed, they barely failed, so they were not what I would consider to be a marijuana crop,” she said. “These were people trying to grow hemp, and instead of 0.3, it was 0.4 or 0.5… we did not have any extreme failures.”

Heaton-Amrhein explained that many strains of hemp exist, some of which come from different climates like Oregon and Colorado.

“It really is a research work in progress to figure out what are the best strains here, what’s the best way to grow them, what are their nutrient needs,” she said. “I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect some failures.”

Last year, DATCP issued 242 grower licenses and 93 processor licenses. So far this year, those numbers have increased significantly. According to DATCP spokeswoman Donna Gilson, the agency has registered 1,214 growers and 536 processors that plan to operate this year.

See a previous story on this topic at WisPolitics.com: http://www.wispolitics.com/2019/fri-report-evers-budget-would-allow-districts-to-rehire-retired-teachers/#story3


–By Alex Moe