State hemp program considers moving to USDA regulation as the number of growers decline

NOW: State hemp program considers moving to USDA regulation as the number of growers decline

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A once booming hemp industry in Wisconsin is now seeing a decline in the number of farmers interested in growing the crop.

Now, Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) is debating ending the state's hemp program and having federal regulators take over.

In 2018, it was a new and exciting time for farmers who could finally legally plant their first hemp seeds in Wisconsin. It allowed growers to sell their crops to CBD businesses, a popular industry that Rob Richard, president of the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance, now says is not what it used to be.

"I think from a CBD perspective, it was such a saturation of the market, and farmers are still sitting on their plants from a year or two ago, not able to find buyers," said Richard.

With a decline in the demand for hemp, Richard said it resulted in fewer people applying for a license to grow, a key revenue source for the hemp program. 

In 2020, 1,537 applied to grow hemp, and so far this year, only 816 have reapplied, according to DATCP. That's nearly a 60% decline from the year prior.

In June, a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo revealed the state's hemp program would end the fiscal year with a negative balance of more than $450,000. This is one factor why DATCP is debating having the USDA step in.

"We are currently working with our stakeholders to consider what the options are for transitioning the hemp program to the U.S. Department of Agriculture," said Leeann Duwe, acting communications director at DATCP.

While federal regulations on hemp are slightly different from Wisconsin, Duwe said there are several potential benefits for growers if the USDA oversaw the program.

"Things like reduced fees for licensing and registration and the amount of time they would have to do registration, because a federal license is three years, whereas a state license is one year."

Growers in Wisconsin also have to pay to get their crops tested, under the USDA plan there are no fees.

Richard said while some growers might be comfortable with the way things are now, he believes most would be open to a shift in operations as some already communicate with the USDA.

"Some farmers like talking to DATCP, they like that customer service, but a lot of farmers are perfectly fine talking to a USDA officer as well," said Richard.

DATCP does not have a timeline in mind when they'll decide if they move to the USDA, according to Duwe.

Fewer Positions

The fiscal report also noted funding woes for DATCP since three hemp positions at the department were set to expire this year. Officials asked to renew the positions in the next spending plan for the state, but lawmakers on the budget committee did not provide money to fund those jobs.

This was another factor impacting the hemp program.

The Future of Hemp

A decline in hemp licenses also resulted in a dramatic shift in the number of crops harvested. In 2020, DATCP reported 587 arches harvested. In 2019, there were over 4,000.

But this doesn't mean the industry is dying, said Richard. He said there's still interest in growing hemp for grain and fiber long-term.

"I think the industry is still good and solid, but we are going through some growing pains which was bound to happen," said Richard. 

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