Testin, Kurtz project Wisconsin will be top hemp producer within a decade

Attitudes on industrial hemp are changing statewide after the first growing season in more than six decades, leading farmers and legislators to believe that it could be the next “huge cash crop.”

One of the boosters is the leading author of legislation that created the state’s hemp pilot program, Sen. Patrick Testin, who predicts Wisconsin will become the top producer of hemp within the next decade.

“I think within five to 10 years, we are going to see Wisconsin be the No. 1 producer and processor of hemp in the entire country,” Testin said in an interview with WisPolitics.com last week.

Hemp has not been planted in Wisconsin since 1957 and has been outlawed in the United States since 1970 when it was lumped in with its psychoactive cousin marijuana and classified as a Schedule I narcotic by the Drug Enforcement Agency under the Controlled Substances Act.

But the 2014 Farm Bill passed by Congress contained a small section that drew distinctions between marijuana and industrial hemp and allowed states to grow hemp “under an agricultural pilot program.”

Wisconsin took advantage of the opportunity by passing Act 100 in 2017. That authorized the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to develop a pilot program to restart industrial hemp farming in the state.

Testin said expectations for the pilot program were tempered at first.

“Initially when we set out on this process, we figured if we could have had a few dozen growers sign up for the program that would have been a great start,” he said.

Testin feared that the legal ambiguity around the crop would scare away farmers. While the 2014 Farm Bill allowed states to set up pilot programs to grow industrial hemp, it did nothing to address hurdles the crop faced in the marketplace.

The 2016 federal government funding bill contained a provision that stripped government agencies of funds “to prohibit the transportation, processing, sale or use of industrial hemp.” But hemp and its products were still classified by the DEA as a Schedule I and by the letter of the law, it remained illegal to transport or sell across state lines.

But a DATCP spokeswoman said the popularity of the pilot program soared from the outset.

“We set up an email distribution list for people who had expressed interest and we must have had between 600 and 700 people on that list,” said DATCP spokeswoman Donna Gilson.

Gilson said DATCP officials were so overwhelmed with calls and emails about the program that they struggled to fulfill their normal duties as they rushed to get information out to interested farmers.

DATCP issued 242 grower licenses and 93 processor licenses in the first year, kicking the program off with a bang that few industry experts predicted.

But the early enthusiasm was not matched by results. Gilson said the 2018’s crop yields were affected by unseasonably wet weather, inexperienced growers and growing pains in the marketplace.

Rep. Tony Kurtz, who was granted a grower license but did not plant the crop, said even experienced farmers didn’t fare well in industrial hemp’s maiden growing season.

“There’s a pretty big farmer in my area and he did 17 acres of hemp and he told me he would never grow it again because he said ‘I can’t sell it,'” said Kurtz, R-Wonewoc.

Gilson said that was a fairly common issue and by her estimation, “almost no one made a profit.”

The hemp industry bottlenecked around what Kurtz called the “yin and yang” relationship between relatively large number of growers and scarcity of processors.

See more in the WisPolitics.com Friday Report: http://www.wispolitics.com/2019/fri-report-historic-redevelopment-projects-so-far-fall-well-below-new-3-5m-tax-credit-cap/

— By Pat Poblete