WHITEWATER, Wis. – (AP) You’d think Jonathan Baker would have been California dreaming on a late October day.
Several acres of Baker’s hemp crop were in limbo. He was awaiting testing to learn whether a late-October snowfall damaged or destroyed hemp still in a field just east of the Koshkonong hills in Wisconsin.
Baker, 29, moved back to Wisconsin after spending a decade in northern California. There he’d been a cannabis activist and small-scale grower of legal cannabis strains for therapeutic use.
His hemp near Whitewater was harvest-ready when the first breath of Wisconsin winter arrived, about a month earlier than usual. He watched out his window as white flakes fell. He and his partners were spending 14-hour days frantically harvesting and hanging his hemp crop, about one-third of which he said was partially frozen and covered by snow.
“It’s beautifully sad,” Baker said.
He was talking about the snow as well as the risks and rewards inherent to commercial-hemp growing. Yet despite the recent raw weather he said he’s glad he left California to bring hemp to the backyard of his Wisconsin hometown.
He believes Wisconsin is primed for growth in the agricultural hemp market, he said. This year he planted about 27 acres of dark-green hemp spread in small plots across southern Jefferson and Dane counties. The hemp plot in rural Whitewater was full of bush-sized hemp plants topped with sticky and pungent flower buds rich in cannabidiol oil – commonly referred to as CBD oil. It’s a legal therapeutic compound that has surged in popularity and made hemp a promising cash crop for a growing number of U.S. farmers.
In Wisconsin almost 900 registered growers planted hemp plots this year, mostly in small tracts tended and harvested by hand. Altogether about 2,000 acres statewide were earmarked for licensed hemp growing in 2019. It’s been the second year the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection allowed licensed growing of commercial hemp under an agricultural-pilot program.
Hemp can be tricky to grow successfully, especially in volatile climates. Hemp and the retail-market niche it’s found continue to face uncertainty under federal regulations still being fleshed out by the US. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Even so it’s becoming a lauded commodity in the health-care market and has begun attracting large pharmaceutical corporations.
The USDA process serves to validate risks taken by startup hemp growers – at a time when hemp is beginning to turn the corner from a marginalized niche industry to a more-broadly accepted agricultural movement. That’s good news for Rock County, Wisconsin, where a small consortium of family farms has begun to make forays into hemp growing.
Baker said he hopes to cash in on the sale of his crop to a few national CBD processors he said he pre-sold to. That’s if the October snow didn’t put too big of a dent into his yield. He needs to repay investors but he also wants to invest in some hemp-farming and -processing equipment. He operates under his limited liability corporation “TFP Sciences.” The letters stand for truth, freedom and prosperity.
He’s working with the city of Whitewater to buy a building where he wants to create an indoor growing facility and lab. He said he eventually wants to go vertical with production. Ultimately he wants to gather together a hemp-product research and development consortium to create a scientific approach rooted in the regional hemp industry.
He thinks hemp is at home in southern Wisconsin, he said. It’s an area he considers a mostly progressive area of the state where he believes startup hemp operators might be able to find footing. As with any major agricultural commodity he believe it’s a matter of time before hemp is inhaled by what he calls large agriculture.
“Even here in Wisconsin, large ag is eventually going to push everybody out,” Baker said. “Your best bet as a young farmer is either try to find a niche and really specialize in that, or be happy even if the prices crash a lot. You’ll still be making so much more with hemp than most other crops at this point.”
Under USDA rules hemp with more than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol is unacceptable and must be destroyed. Baker said his fight to legalize cannabis made him less averse to risk. He believes that legalization of various types of cannabis in some states has vindicated him and other earlier advocates. He believes his work with Wisconsin hemp is now legitimate farming that will give people health-care choices.