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Fall 2020

Feature

The view from the ground up in an industrial hemp test plot at Arlington Agricultural Research Station. Photo by Michael P. King

 

In late 2018, Ralph and Beth Aschenbrenner started hearing a lot of good things about growing industrial hemp. Hemp is an incredibly versatile plant, known for its strong fiber and nutrient-rich grain. It’s used in textiles, ropes, and building materials. It can be found in cooking oil, protein bars, and hemp milk. It’s also added to lotions and cosmetics.

But most of the buzz the Aschenbrenners heard centered on a more lucrative component of the crop: cannabidiol (CBD), a compound being marketed as a health-promoting neutraceutical for a wide range of medical conditions. CBD was the new “it” item, found in an expanding assortment of tinctures, lotions, and other products. And although they weren’t farmers, by early 2019, the Aschenbrenners were excited about giving hemp a go.

“I had read some articles about hemp and how it’s the new gold rush kind of thing,” says Ralph. “Then I talked to my daughter, Mary. She always likes to try new things, and she’s big into organic farming. [Eventually] she said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”

The Aschenbrenners live on two-and-a-half acres in Hobart, Wisconsin, and they decided to expand their sizable vegetable garden to accommodate one-third of an acre of hemp. Mary, who lives in Madison, would drive up and help on weekends. They were excited to be marching in the new vanguard of Wisconsin hemp farmers. The crop had recently been legalized, a change in status that returned the state to its nearly forgotten agricultural roots.

Ralph Aschenbrenner and his daughter, Mary Aschenbrenner, pose with young hemp plants in 2019, their inaugural season of growing the crop. Photo courtesy of Beth and Ralph Aschenbrenner

Wisconsin’s first hemp crop was planted in 1908, and the state was a leading producer during World War II, when the plant’s fibers were used to make rope for the war effort. Market shifts largely halted hemp production in the 1950s. In 1970, the crop ended up listed as a Schedule I drug — alongside marijuana — in the federal Controlled Substances Act, even though hemp has very low levels (less than 0.3%) of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound found in its cannabis cousin. In late 2017, after key changes to federal and state legislation, it once again became legal to grow industrial hemp in Wisconsin.

In 2018, around 135 growers gave it a try. In 2019, that number shot up to around 850, with the Aschenbrenners among the many hundreds of first-timers that year. The vast majority planned to grow CBD hemp, with their sights set on producing fields of female plants with high levels of CBD in their unpollinated flowers, where the non-psychoactive compound concentrates.

The Aschenbrenners applied for a grower’s license through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program. Their plan was to grow CBD hemp and sell it to a CBD processor. They would grow hemp in Hobart for one year and then hand over the operation to their daughter to continue in the Madison area. Next came seed acquisitions and investments in new equipment to help them plant, harvest, and process their crop. They jumped right in. It was an invigorating time.

“I applied for a license about two weeks before the permit period ended,” recalls Ralph. “From that point on, it was a scramble, and we had nothing. We didn’t even have the [new garden] area completely groomed and ready to grow. We did a lot of reading to just get as much information as we could [about growing hemp].”

Unfortunately, the Aschenbrenners and other growers found a dearth of Wisconsin-specific recommendations. Before 2018, the crop hadn’t been grown in the state for more than 50 years, so whatever agricultural knowledge had been developed was long lost. Many growers turned to CALS and the UW–Madison Division of Extension for help.

In response, CALS and Extension launched a new hemp program in early 2019, marshaling rapid response funds to address the major questions and challenges facing the state’s hemp growers. It’s an interdisciplinary, all-hands-on-deck effort to start rebuilding the state’s knowledge base of hemp agronomics and genetics, to better understand the crop’s modern market potential, and to share everything learned with growers.

“Our goal, as always, is to provide accurate advice on the best agricultural practices for Wisconsin’s hemp growers, with solid science behind our recommendations,” says project leader Rodrigo Werle, assistant professor and extension specialist in the Department of Agronomy.

The Aschenbrenners, along with hundreds of others, turned out for the program’s webinars, field days, and growers’ meetings. Each event drew huge crowds, and excitement thrummed through researchers and growers alike. It felt like the start of a grand adventure, a time to try new things and learn new things — and, for growers, to face the risks and rewards of entering a developing market.

Ultimately, it turned out to be a rough experience for many.

“It’s been exciting to work on a new crop,” says Werle. “However, it’s a challenging spot to be in right now, especially because a lot of people grew the crop thinking they were going to be able to sell it, and many couldn’t.”

A Necessary Network

Like the state’s hemp growers, UW–Madison experts jumped right in.

“We started with nothing in the spring of 2019,” says horticulture assistant professor Shelby Ellison BS’06, who manages the UW hemp program’s CBD hemp efforts. “None of us had any formal training in hemp or cannabis. It’s crazy how many connections we developed and how much we learned in such a short period of time.”

UW hemp project leader Rodrigo Werle addresses attendees of a special session on industrial hemp during the Agronomy and Soils Field Day held at Arlington Agricultural Research Station in August 2019. Photo by Beth Skogen

The UW’s hemp program includes more than a dozen CALS faculty members with joint appointments in Extension — from agronomy, horticulture, soil science, plant pathology, biological systems engineering, and agricultural and applied economics — as well as Extension educators in three counties. Together, they set out to explore a long list of questions related to hemp grown for CBD, grain, and fiber in the context of conventional and organic systems. The overall effort involves research and outreach as well as a new UW undergraduate course on hemp.

At the outset, however, the fledgling program needed the help of others. The Wisconsin Idea thrives on partnerships, support from committed stakeholders, and a two-way flow of information, and this was a situation where outside expertise and support made all the difference.

Early on, the program was bolstered by a gift from Tim Erdman, of Erdman Factory and Farms, which provided additional support for research, outreach, and program staffing. At the time, Erdman was preparing for his first foray into the field to grow CBD hemp, and he was interested in exploring how to apply his resources to further the budding industry in Wisconsin.

“I would like Wisconsin to be a leader in hemp again, as we were in the past,” says Erdman, whose hemp business now focuses on seed improvement and production. “After meeting with the folks at the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center and talking with Dean Kate VandenBosch, I was impressed enough with the college’s unique capabilities to decide to contribute to the efforts.”

Throughout the 2019 season, but especially early on, the UW team relied on professors and hemp growers from other states as well as Wisconsin’s own 2018 hemp growers to serve as expert panelists at their outreach events and to help guide the development of their first-year field trials. One of them was Bryan Parr, an agronomist at Legacy Hemp, LLC.

“Brian Parr experimented with the crop for a year before we started,” says Werle, who oversees the program’s fiber- and grain-focused efforts. “I think we would have made a lot of mistakes if we didn’t have recommendations from him.”

Due to some language in Wisconsin’s hemp law, known as Act 100, the UW’s hemp outreach events turned out to be critical networking opportunities. They provided one of the only ways for hemp growers and processors to find each other.

“To protect the identities and field locations of growers against potential theft, there was a confidentiality clause in Act 100 that prevented DATCP from sharing information about the state’s growers and processors,” says Rob Richard, president of the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance. “Because of that, the UW has been a key clearinghouse to connect growers with each other.”

Not surprisingly, in-person events drew significant crowds, between 300 and 400 for the big field days and grower meetings. And similar numbers participated in the early-season webinars.

“It’s really remarkable how many people participated in our programming,” recalls Ellison. “It was thousands and thousands of people through all of the events that we did.”

First Field Trials

As data from the UW’s various field trials came in, hemp program researchers started sharing their initial results. A major concern of CBD hemp growers in Wisconsin — and across the nation — has to do with THC levels. If the THC concentration of a hemp plant rises above the legal limit of 0.3% dry weight — in other words, if the plant “goes hot” — federal law says a grower’s entire field must be destroyed. Understandably, growers want to know: What varieties tend to go hot? What management practices contribute to this? At the start of the season, there was particular suspicion that nitrogen fertilizer could drive up THC levels.

Haleigh Ortmeier-Clarke, a research assistant in the Department of Agronomy, conducts spectral imaging on an industrial hemp test plot at Arlington Agricultural Research Station in July 2019. Photo by Michael P. King

To that end, Ellison conducted a CBD hemp variety trial, looking at three nitrogen application levels. Plant samples were analyzed at the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center (WCIC) on a high-performance liquid chromatography system, a machine that Erdman donated to the college — in addition to his general program gift — to help facilitate testing of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids. Some of the UW research plants tested hot, and THC remained a problem for Wisconsin growers. Across the state, around 15% of the crop had to be destroyed. (Other states fared worse: In Arizona, around 40% of the crop was destroyed.)

UW researchers found that nitrogen didn’t seem to cause problems. Instead, going hot was more about the variety — the specific genetics — of the plant.

“There are very clear differences on what performs well in the Midwest,” says Ellison. “I only ran six varieties [in 2019] but I also have this big network of people that I know. So I have information about what grows well, more or less, as well as what grows poorly or is very likely to go hot.”

On the fiber and grain side of things, where THC is less of a concern, Werle’s team — in collaboration with teams led by agronomy professor Shawn Conley BS’96, MS’99, PhD’01 and soil science professor Carrie Laboski — conducted an agronomic study assessing planting densities and fertilizer rates using varieties known as X-59 and CRS-1. They were also involved in a multi-state trial of 15 varieties from Europe and Canada, running the trial at two locations in the state with support from Extension educators on the hemp team and Arlington Agricultural Research Station staff.

“The goal was to see how well they do in different environments,” says Haleigh Ortmeier-Clarke, an agronomy graduate student in both Werle’s and Conley’s labs. “There’s a lot of variation in our data, which we kind of expected. Some varieties are going to do well in the Wisconsin climate, and some aren’t.”

The UW hemp team produced many other helpful initial findings related to weed and pest management options, mechanical harvest technology, and how hemp fits into organic grain production systems. These efforts set the stage for ongoing research in 2020 and beyond.

Feral and Red Fluorescent

The U.S. hemp industry is looking for a permanent solution to the THC problem. Many of the crops that go hot are just barely over the THC limit. There’s a widespread push to ask the federal government to increase the current THC maximum level of 0.3% — which many see as arbitrary and unnecessarily low — up to 1%. But no one is holding their breath for that. At the same time, the industry is asking for improved varieties that reliably stay under the THC threshold.

Last year, CALS researchers at the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center inserted the gene for red fluorescent protein into a hemp plant’s genome. It was perhaps the first successful attempt to genetically engineer hemp. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center

“Exceeding the THC limit is a major risk factor for growers,” says Doug Reinemann BS’80, MS’83, associate dean for outreach and extension for CALS. “The biggest need — the place where the UW can make a significant contribution — is the plant genetics, the plant breeding to develop certified seed stock that is going to perform reliably.”

To that end, Ellison spent some of her time during 2019 gathering “feral hemp” from Wisconsin’s roadsides and field edges. These are wild survivors from back when hemp was widely grown in the state, plants that have survived untended for decades and are adapted to Wisconsin’s climate and soil types. Ellison plans to share seeds from these plants with the new hemp seed bank being established by the USDA, and they will be a part of the UW’s program to support traditional plant breeding efforts to improve hemp for Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Another group of CALS researchers is making swift progress trying a different tack — genetic engineering — to improve hemp. Last year, CALS researchers at the WCIC inserted the gene for red fluorescent protein (RFP) into a hemp plant’s genome. The resultant plants, when viewed through a green filter, glow a striking poinsettia red.

The WCIC team believes this proof-of-concept experiment was the first successful genetic engineering of hemp. The hemp cells transformed at WCIC grew into fully fertile plants that were able to pass along the RFP gene to their progeny. At the time, other scientific teams had only been able to coax their transformed cells to grow into roots or clumps of cells.

“I scoured the literature — public universities and private companies — and can’t find evidence that anyone has done what WCIC has done,” says Mike Petersen BS’87, WCIC’s associate director.

WCIC staff have filed a patent for the technology through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and they are eager to work with researchers from public and private institutions on projects to improve hemp through genetic engineering and gene editing.

“Subsequent efforts would create plants with traits that could be of value to Wisconsin’s farmers, such as THC-free hemp, high-CBD hemp, better disease resistance, better fiber, and more,” says Petersen. To explore these and other traits and engineer improvements in hemp, the WCIC was recently awarded a grant from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation Accelerator Program.

An Uncertain Market Forecast

Despite various challenges, many Wisconsin growers who planted CBD hemp managed to produce a beautiful crop. But that didn’t guarantee financial success; unfortunately, the vast majority couldn’t find a buyer.

Compared to other states, Wisconsin’s market is still in its infancy, so there aren’t many processors or businesses buying hemp or hemp products. That infrastructure is being developed on the fly.

“Wisconsin is behind, way behind,” says Paul Mitchell, professor and extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. “There are at least 14 states that have more years of experience than us in hemp production.”

Assistant professor of horticulture Shelby Ellison manages UW’s research and outreach efforts related to hemp varieties that are grown for CBD oil harvesting. Photo by Michael P. King

As part of the UW hemp team, Mitchell’s role is to assess the economic and market potential of hemp for Wisconsin and share that information widely with the state’s growers, processors, lenders, and businesses. His goal is to paint an accurate economic picture of what people can expect in the short-term as well as factors that may influence long-term profitability.

It isn’t a pretty picture right now.

Over the course of the 2019 growing season, the price for CBD hemp (raw biomass) dropped by around 70%. This was caused by a huge shift in the supply-and-demand equation that year. As Mitchell explains it, the value of the current CBD market in the United States is around $4 billion per year. At that level, only 20,000 acres of CBD hemp are needed. In 2019, however, U.S. growers planted around 115,000 acres, saturating the market.

There are some notes of optimism for the future, however, for those who can take the long view. In particular, there are some if-then scenarios that could lead to more hemp being grown on the landscape — in Wisconsin and around the nation. Two big ones are predicated on changes to current federal regulations.

Right now, hemp grain cannot be used as animal feed. If the U.S. Department of Agriculture were to OK this use, the market for grain would expand significantly.

Along the same lines, it’s currently illegal to add CBD to food products; it must be treated as an unregulated supplement. If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were to give CBD official “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, status, it could lead to a huge surge in consumer food and beverage products that feature CBD.

“Coca-Cola isn’t going to release a CBD product until the FDA gives them the OK to do so,” says Ellison. “[If they do], that will drastically affect the market.”

In the meantime, Wisconsin has a number of comparative advantages that should help bolster the state’s burgeoning hemp market. The state is a leading producer of numerous specialty crops, such as potato, cranberry, sweet corn, green beans, and ginseng. It’s also strong in food processing and a leader in organics. All of these things give Wisconsin an edge.

“I know we can catch up if we want to,” says Mitchell. “We can add hemp to our list of specialty crops. We’re going to see small companies developing successful products for local and regional markets. But we’ve got a lot of work to do yet. This isn’t going to happen without a lot of people putting in a lot of work.”

Hemp Hope Sprouts Eternal

In spring 2019, the Aschenbrenners started with 600 CBD hemp plants. After a relentlessly wet spring, they planted at the earliest opportunity. It turned out to be an unseasonably hot and dry weekend, and the plants struggled. The 500 or so survivors were later laid flat by a massive windstorm. Ralph and Beth meticulously worked their way through the field, loosening the soil around the roots and righting each plant, one by one. Later in the season, two different fungi attacked the crop.

To help them contend with these and other issues, the Aschenbrenners attended a handful of UW hemp events over the course of the season. They also utilized the recommendations and services of a private agronomics company.

“There were times when I thought it wasn’t doing very well, but the crop actually turned out pretty decent at the very end,” says Ralph Aschenbrenner.

Left and middle: An industrial hemp plant of a high-CBD variety grows at West Star Organics in Cottage Grove, Wis., and assistant professor of horticulture Shelby Ellison harvests flowers from another plant. The plants were part of a field trial observing THC levels in plants treated with different rates of organic nitrogen fertilizer. Right: Ellison holds clippings and seed from feral hemp plants gathered in Wisconsin. The feral plants, which have adapted to local conditions, could be crossed with high-CBD varieties to make varieties that can thrive in the state. Photos by Michael P. King

At harvest time, they hired a few locals through Craigslist to help bring in their crop of 450 plants, and various family members worked side by side to destem, trim, and start drying the hemp flowers. They ended up with a fabulous haul — 257 pounds of dried hemp flowers with an impressive 11.8% CBD, ready for processing. But no buyer.

“We couldn’t find a processor,” says Beth Aschenbrenner. “Those that would take it were charging so much, and then they’d give [the hemp oil or purified CBD extract] back to you, and you’d have to sell it yourself.”

In December, Beth and Ralph attended a UW-hosted hemp growers meeting to assess their options. They ended up buying a press from the Oil Press Company of Mondovia, Wisconsin, after meeting the company’s owners at the event.

And they kept moving forward with their plan. In spring 2020, Mary took the equipment and planted 800 CBD hemp plants near Madison. At the same time, she also took possession of the previous year’s Hobart harvest to press, package, and market. They plan to sell bottles of hemp oil to family and friends and go from there.

“There are a lot of people that are stepping out of the farming industry. Mary wants to get in, and we want to help and support her as much as we can,” says Ralph. “We want to ensure she has a whole wealth of knowledge of how things work, in case she ever wants to scale up. Hopefully, one day, she can start her own little organic farm of some sort. Maybe it’s not all hemp. Maybe it’s a mix of things.”

The Aschenbrenners aren’t the only folks who didn’t give up on hemp. In 2020, DATCP received 1,510 applications for grower licenses, virtually the same number as in 2019. Around half were for repeat growers and half for first-timers. Given the difficult market situation, it shows a surprising level of continued interest and commitment.

“The folks I talked with this year, they are planting hemp because they feel they can do a better job, have a higher-quality product, and use less labor,” says Ellison. “They want to continue to get skills and experiences growing hemp. And folks this year are planting at a much smaller scale, so there’s not as much risk.”

The UW hemp program is also marching forward while following new safety guidelines in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The team has created online resources and digital materials for outreach, and they’ve repeated many of the program’s field studies — with physical distancing. Ellison’s CBD hemp variety trial expanded to 44 varieties, so there will be more information to share in the near future.

“There will be a lot of resources that will come out of what we are doing this summer,” says Ellison. “All of our recommendations will carry more weight after a second year of data collection.”

As the hemp industry develops in Wisconsin, the UW hemp program will continue its work and keep adapting to the interests and needs of the state’s growers.

“For now, I would recommend people plant very small acreage,” Ellison says. “Just focus on learning how to grow it until the FDA and USDA decide what’s going to happen.”

And Werle suggests avoiding costly errors by leaving the experimentation to UW. “Let us make the mistakes in the research plots,” he suggests. “Let us learn what works, and what doesn’t, in our environment.”

Wisconsin’s hopeful and persistent hemp growers can take it from there.

For webinars, videos, events, networking assistance, research reports, and other resources, visit the UW Division of Extension Wisconsin Hemp website.

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