Proceed with caution. That phrase could best be applied to the burgeoning hemp industry.
The new market holds promise for farmers hurting from depressed prices for other crops. But products from hemp are not yet regulated; uncertainty remains. Questions also remain about how to grow hemp and whom to trust. The Michael Fields Institute, the University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension and Turtle Creek Gardens are a few organizations helping to answer questions.
The institute, based in East Troy, Wisconsin, launched in spring the “Hemp Information Exchange.” The online resource enables growers to ask production and processing questions. The active discussion group regularly adds new posts.
UW-Extension offers an industrial-hemp directory where one can register or find contact information for other hemp growers and processors. UW-Extension also has hosted three webinars in 2019. Those webinars have addressed several hemp-related topics.
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UW-Extension’s April webinar series had a peak of 347 concurrent viewers and more than 660 unique viewers during the live broadcasts, according to Tony Roman, education-technology team lead for UW-Extension.
“We edited the four-hour webinar to four shorter topic-focused videos,” he said. “Those videos are approaching 4,000 views on YouTube. The cannabidiol-production video has more than 2,200 views at this time.”
UW-Extension’s August webinar series had a smaller initial viewing audience. But that series also has been edited to shorter videos and posted on YouTube.
UW-Madison has created a hemp-centric website and in summer added to its faculty Shelby Ellison. She’s a faculty associate with a doctorate degree in genetics, and serves as the main contact for hemp-related inquiries.
Field days have enabled growers to see how different varieties of hemp grow in Wisconsin environments. Leah Sandler is an educator director and a research agronomist at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. She planted about a dozen hemp cultivars this past spring – seven seed varieties and five clone varieties. The plant materials were sourced primarily from Colorado and North Carolina.
“We’re evaluating varieties for cannabidiol production, not for grain and fiber,” she said. “We’re also studying spacing requirements.”
Planting seed varieties in early May in a greenhouse, she then transplanted them the first week of June to the research plot. Clones were planted in the same plot so growers could make comparisons.
The clones were all-female plants that produce flowers from which cannabidiol is extracted. Sandler said plants from clones showed more uniform emergence and growth. She provided 3-foot by 4-foot spacing for the plants from clones.
Janet Gamble co-owns Turtle Creek Gardens near Delavan, Wisconsin. She specializes in vegetable production. The community-supported-agriculture farm also sells direct and at farmers markets.
Along with a few other growers in the area, Gamble and her associates established a cooperative to share vegetable production and processing equipment. They also provide training programs for farmers.
They began exploring hemp in 2017 as an alternative crop to diversify farm income. They researched hemp for the production of cannabidiol and attended various hemp expositions.
“We continued to do research and found other growers and industry people we could learn from and trust,” Gamble said.
The team at Turtle Creek Gardens has shared what they’ve learned with other growers. In conjunction with the Michel Fields Agricultural Institute they have hosted field days.
“Most of the people contacting us aren’t farmers and don’t have knowledge about crop production,” she said. “And experienced farmers contact us because we’ve been immersed in research and have done the networking. We help people whether they’re first-time growers or experienced farmers.”
Turtle Creek Gardens is now in its second year of hemp production, devoting about 4 acres to the crop this year. One challenge is hemp requires a significant amount of hand labor. It’s also vulnerable to a host of pests.
“Everything loves this plant,” Gamble said.
The Eurasian hemp borer as well as earworms and corn borers damage hemp. Weed control is another large challenge. Both UW-Extension and the Michael Fields Institute are addressing the issue.
Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.