MADISON, WI (Spectrum News 1) -- Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have announced a plan to research industrial hemp and the best practices for growing it.
The 2018 Farm Bill made it legal for the first time in decades to grow and sell industrial hemp. For the growing season of 2019 more than 1,400 people applied to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection to grow the crop.
“There's a lot of excitement out there,” said Rodrigo Werle, the project leader and UW-Madison assistant professor of agronomy. “Everything is happening really fast, it's an old crop that became new again, times are really tough for growers out there so everybody is looking for an opportunity.”
Wisconsin used to be one of the country's top producers of hemp before legal production ended in the late 1930's. Since then very little work has been done developing practices for growing the crop in Wisconsin.
“I think the lack of research and the lack of peer reviewed research in the last 50/60 has really been detrimental to how successful industrial hemp is right now,” said Shelby Ellison, a plant geneticist and honorary associate with the UW Department of Horticulture.
The project is a partnership between UW Extension and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. More than 20 researchers are working on the year-long project. The two branches of UW have secured more than $30,000 in grant funding for it.
They plan to focus on three main areas: research, extension, and teaching. The research aspect will look into best practices for growing industrial hemp both for grain or fiber and for CBD — a product used for medical purposes.
The researchers want to look into the most affective way to grow hemp without going over the legal threshold of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC — the part of marijuana that causes a high.
“That's kind of the purpose of this research here, getting the most out of your input while keeping your THC under threshold numbers there so the grower can harvest that crop and sell it,” Werle said.
Being part of the cannabis family the crop will be regulated heavily. If the THC level goes above .3 percent dry weight the hemp must be destroyed.
The project will also aim to give extension educators more information on hemp that specifically pertains to Wisconsin. Werle said right now educators are inundated with questions and the only information they can give is what they've read from other states.
“Next year we're going to have a lot more information to be helping them,” Werle said.
The project will also result in a course offered through UW on industrial hemp. Ellison is developing that course.
“It's an exciting topic, I think people are really interested, and I think the content will be so engaging that the course will be already a head start,” Ellison said.
A group of economists are also part of the project. They will be researching the market for hemp products. Werle said they will especially aim to find out what the market for it will be past the initial boom that Wisconsin and the country is seeing. Right now Werle said they are advising people not to invest in growing hemp unless they know they have a market and a buyer for it.
Werle said colleagues of his at other universities have been blocked from doing research like this, even after growing industrial hemp was legalized in 2018. He said the University of Wisconsin has been supportive of the project.
Ultimately they hope to help the industry in Wisconsin be as effective as possible in the years to come.
“We don't have the best recommendations for our growers right now, only through this continued research will we start to have good recommendations that will be necessary for it to be successful in Wisconsin,” Ellison said.
UW recently hosted a webinar on hemp, you can find the nearly hour-long discussion here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aa-pVhJM3Bg