WAUSAU, Wis. – Dave Fierek is on a mission. He’s a Hatley, Wisconsin, hemp farmer who wants to help people experience the benefits of hemp and cannabidiol oil through product offerings and educational conversations. He brought together those interested in a recent conversational event in Wausau.
Jeff Amundson was on-hand; he touched on the difference between hemp grown for cannabidiol – CBD – vs. tetrahydrocannabinol – THC. With a degree in experimental-cognitive psychology, he’s held teaching positions at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point at Marshfield and Wausau. He now provides writing, instructional and research services through his own business, WIR Academics – pronounced “We’re academics.”
He emphasized that hemp being grown in Wisconsin for the production of CBD oil differs from marijuana, which is grown for the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol. Both plants are varieties of the Cannabis sativa species.
“This is not about getting ‘high,’” he said.
Wisconsin has a long history of growing hemp. A 1918 report from the University of Wisconsin ranked Wisconsin second in acreage and production of hemp fiber, Amundson said. At that time Wisconsin had 70 percent of the nation’s hemp mills. The industry began in 1908 in Wisconsin when 6 acres were planted on what is now the Mendota Mental Health Institute. Also 3 acres were planted at the Waupun prison farm by the Agronomy Department of Wisconsin’s experiment station in cooperation with the Office of Fiber Investigations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It was 2017 when farmers in Wisconsin were once again allowed to plant hemp.
“But there are important restrictions in Wisconsin,” Fierek said. “Hemp producers are required to have their plants tested prior to harvest for THC content. It must not be above .3 percent (tetrahydrocannabinol). Marijuana grown for THC can be as high as 30 percent in (tetrahydrocannabinol) content. That puts our .3 percent or less at a very low threshold.”
Breeding and growing hemp for cannabidiol oil is not all Dave Fierek does with the versatile plant. He’s the sole proprietor of Wisco Hemp Farms near Hatley. In his second year of production, he produces a Hemp CBD Salve for arthritic soreness and a Hemp Seed CBD Soap. Fierek has also partnered with Joe’s Texas BBQ, a Green Bay eatery, to produce several Hemp-B-Que products. In addition to two barbeque sauces, a Hemp-B-Que meat rub and Hemp-B-Que Hemp briquettes are available for grilling projects. The sauces and meat rub contain hempseed oil, which Fierek said has a nearly ideal ratio of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.
Like for most Wisconsin farms, 2019 was a difficult year due to excess moisture. Fierek had similar challenges, he said, and was only able to establish 2 acres of hemp instead of his planned 6 acres. He plants his hemp from seed; he uses weed-barrier fabric to reduce unwanted weeds and warm the soil. He believes that helps establish a strong root system. He uses poly tanks to deliver a compost tea to plants throughout the growing season. He comprises 100 percent of his labor force.
“(But) if I had been able to plant all 6 acres I would have needed more labor to get the crop harvested,” he said.
He said 2 acres is about all a person can handle alone.
His 2019 harvest window was three weeks beginning just after Labor Day. Fierek uses a cordless Sawzall to cut the plants at the base; he then hauls them with his Ford Ranger pickup truck to a shed for drying. He hangs the hemp upside down and uses box fans to circulate air. He shoots for a moisture level of 5 percent to 10 percent.
“You don’t want the plant to be crispy-dry,” he said.
In addition to the required testing by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to ensure the tetrahydrocannabinol level isn’t at more than .3 percent, Fierek uses an independent lab to test the level of cannabidiol in his hemp.
“You want to know the CBD level to see if your plants are producing oil at the level you expect from different varieties,” he said.
Fierek’s hemp acreage was a meadow for the past 30 years. He doesn’t own the land but has an arrangement with the owners to use it for his hemp plantings. The land hasn’t had any chemicals on it and has only been in hay production. It’s surrounded by woods; Fierek has noticed a large number of frogs inhabiting his hemp acreage. One morning this past summer he counted 25 tree frogs on his hemp plants when he stopped counting. He joked they’re his only source of labor.
Despite the amount of work involved Fierek remains enthusiastic about the potential for hemp growing in Wisconsin, he said. He emphasized producers need to knowing their seed source – and that there is always a risk they can be surprised by a greater-than-acceptable tetrahydrocannabinol level.