‘I wouldn’t bet the farm on it’: Experts pump brakes on industrial hemp hype
MADISON, Wis. — On the second year of the hemp pilot program, more than 2,000 people signed up for permits to either grow or process the crop, but experts say it’s too soon to tell if the crop could be a savior for farmers dealing with low prices on their other goods.
Donna Gilson works for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, the organization in charge of the hemp pilot program. She said after the Farm Bill pulled industrial hemp from the list of controlled substances, people weren’t as scared to sign up.
“I think there’s probably they’ve been waiting for this a long time,” Gilson said.
Last year there were only 347. Total. That’s a 600+% increase.
— Amy Reid (@amyreidreports) March 5, 2019
On Monday her agency said nearly 2,097 people applied to grow or process industrial hemp this year, a huge increase from the 347 who did last year, but what that will look like is hard to know.
“All the agronomic things that we know about for all of our other commodity crops and that the university has been researching for decades, that research hasn’t been done for industrial hemp,” she said.
University of Wisconsin-Madison agriculture and applied economics Professor Paul Mitchell said the university has a lot of research to do before they fully understand the crop, and his department is considering hiring someone to study it.
Until then he said a lot of this knowledge, such as where to buy seeds, how many seeds to plant to get a good yield and how to take care of the crop to make sure it’s still ok to sell, will have to come from these farmers, and that experimentation could be costly.
For instance, in order for the hemp to still be legal, the THC level must stay below 0.3 percent, and some factors in growing will alter that. If it doesn’t meet those levels, it has to be destroyed.
“Fertilizer’s a big one,” Mitchell said. “Too much fertilizer the crop gets too hot the THC gets above the required minimum that’s needed to maintain its status as industrial hemp. If you break that limit you have to do a crop destruct.”
He said it’s a hard thing for farmers to have to do, and last year in the program about 7 percent of farmers had to destroy their crop.
He also said with such high interest in a new opportunity, farmers need to make sure they don’t oversaturate the market with the crop, or else it won’t pay off.
It’s why he said it’s a good thing to research, but not necessarily a good thing to bet on.
“For all growers I’d be concerned about not betting the farm on this,” Mitchell said. “There’s a place for hemp in Wisconsin. I don’t know if it’s going to save us from the low prices on a lot of our commodities.”
Even though the list of unknowns grows long, regulators still think it’s worth it to try.
“We need to take it very seriously that there is a high level of interest in this crop,” Gilson said. “We need to do what we can to make these people be successful.”
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