09 October 2011

Could hemp grow the economy?

Hemp, in its heyday, was the king of cash crops in Fond du Lac County.

From the early 1900s until the mid-1950s, industrial hemp was grown to produce rope and twine at factories in and around Alto, Brandon, Markesan, Fairwater, Horicon and Waupun. Fond du Lac County gained fame as one of the top producing hemp counties in the state.

Now, it is against federal law to grow hemp, but through the years, various legislatures have tried and failed to get the law changed. Many believe a rebirth of the industry could help local and state economies as more products made with hemp appear on the market.

The federal industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009 bill was introduced in Congress in April 2009. The bill excludes industrial hemp 
from the definition of 'mariiuana' in the Controlled Substances Act and gives states the exclusive authority to regulate the growing and processing
 of industrial hemp under state law. The bill died in committee at the end of the 111th Congress in January 2011. It had 26 co-sponsors, including Rep. Ron Paul. 

When Fond du Lac County Executive Allen Buechel was growing up in St. Peter, hemp grew wild in fields and along fence lines and roadways. It was so prolific that it earned the name ditch weed — a poor name for a plant that once produced an agricultural boon.

"My father told me that it was the war that really drove the hemp industry in this area," Buechel said. "After the demand died down, so did the factories."

If there was assurance hemp wouldn't be used as an illegal drug, he's all for it — anything that could boost business and help create jobs.

"If it's another option for farmers to grow — great, as long as there is a market to drive it," he said.

Hemp products range from makeup and clothing to milk products, protein powders and oil — even micro-brewery beer. U.S. businesses that use hemp in production import it from countries like Canada, China, Australia, France and Germany that are cashing in on the bulk of the production, grossing $365 million in North American products alone, according to the Hemp Industries Association.

The roadblock is at the federal level with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) refusing to permit the growing of cannibis crops, including hemp. U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, is among the government leaders who support legislation that would declassify hemp as a controlled substance under DEA regulation.

The perception with law enforcement is it would be too hard for them to distinguish hemp from marijuana in the fields.

"There's confusion out there that hemp is the same plant as marijuana. Although they are related, they are much different," said Mike Rankin, crops and soil agent for University of Wisconsin-Extension, Fond du Lac County.

Industrial hemp has a THC content of between 0.05 and 1% Marijuana has a THC content of 3% to 20%.

To receive a standard psychoactive dose would require a person to power-smoke 10 to 12 hemp cigarettes over a short period of time. The large volume and high temperature of vapor, gas and smoke would be almost impossible for a person to withstand, according to the North American Industrial Hemp Council.

Fiber and seed
Rankin said the plant is useful for its fiber and seed. Since it grows readily and is already adapted to this region, it would be easy for farmers to grow as a crop option, he said.

"One of the problems with alternative crops, regardless of what it is, is it all sounds great but is there a market for it? Profits can be eaten up by transportation or processing. Wisconsin has a rich paper tradition, so I do see potential there," he said.

Waupun historian Jim Laird said hemp was a major industry for the Wisconsin State Prison in the early 1900s. The Badger Binder Twine Company operated at the prison until after World War II. Between 1942 and 1946, Wisconsin housed 38 prisoner-of-war camps, and German prisoners worked the hemp fields that grew around the Waupun and Ripon areas.

Former farmer Rueben Hopp, now in agriculture sales, lived on Hemp Road near Brandon for more than 50 years. He said they often had to deal with fighting the hardy wild plant, which can grow to 8 feet tall and easily take over fields.

"I could see how there's potential as a crop, but there has to be a profit. You have to know the input cost and know what you can get back out of it," he said.

Bill introduced
State Assembly Rep. Louis Molepske, R-Stevens Point, introduced the most recent hemp bill — 2009 AB 740. While it was the first bill of its kind to pass through the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and High Education, it did not get scheduled for the Assembly.

"I'm going to continue to push the issue. I think it's laughable we treat hemp as if it is an illegal substance when the first colonists to this country were required to grow hemp, and hemp farmers in our state provided for the war effort," he said.

In Molepske's part of the state, potatoes are the biggest crop, but there are always concerns about water consumption. Hemp as an alternative crop makes sense, he said. Farmers can make up to $750 an acre, according to figures from UW-Extension and Hemp Oil Canada.

"There are companies in Wisconsin making hemp products that want their raw material grown in Wisconsin, but they have to import it from Canada or China. I had to tell one company that wanted to relocate from Canada to Wisconsin that they would have to wait for the law to change to have their source material grown locally," Molepske said.

Newly elected Senator Jessica King, D-Oshkosh, said she remains committed to gathering feedback and listening to citizens in the district before making any statements about the controversial hemp plant.

"We look forward to working with community stakeholders to ensure that priorities and concerns of our rural and urban communities are taken into consideration at the earliest stage of policy development. But after reviewing our constituent contacts, we haven't been contacted by any local farmers who have expressed interest in the hemp industry," King said.

8 October, 2011

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