Willie Hughes was one of the Wisconsin farmers growing hemp legally for the first time in about seven decades, and he wanted his crop to thrive.
Growing hemp carried uncertainty. What care did it need? How is it harvested? What’s its legality, considering the federal government still classifies it as an illegal substance?
Many curious farmers chose to stay on the sidelines and not grow hemp this year. They wanted to see how others handled it before jumping in.
Hughes put extra pressure on himself.
“A certain part of me wanted to do good because I felt that the success of the industry or the legitimacy of the crop might be judged by my success,” he said. “I wanted to do well for that reason.”
For corn and soybeans, farmers have a base of knowledge accumulated through generations of growing the crops, but they have no such base to draw from for growing hemp. They knew there would be hiccups and didn’t expect huge yields. This year still was part of the learning phase, Hughes said.
Good thing expectations were low. Results were not impressive.
By any economic measure, hemp returned with only a whimper.
Significant summer rains allowed weeds in hemp fields to flourish. A lot of hemp is grown organically, limiting use of chemical weed killers. Some farmers lost their entire hemp crops as weeds engulfed fields.
The season’s poor outcome might discourage some farmers from planting hemp a second time. It might deter some farmers from giving it a shot at all.
But others are determined to learn from this year and find a way to make the crop work.
Hughes’ 15 acres of grain hemp had plenty of weak spots, but some areas were exceptional.
“I got little glimpses of what success looks like, and that was really exciting. Just spots in the field where it clearly, clearly worked,” he said. “That really cemented my belief that it’s possible.”
Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy grew small research plots of hemp grown for grain and hemp grown for cannabidiol, or CBD oil. These are two of the main products derived from hemp, along with fiber.
Grain hemp often is used to make cooking oil or health foods such as hemp hearts. Organic grain hemp seeds fetch about $1 per pound at market.
Hemp grown for CBD oil goes toward medicinal supplements and is significantly more lucrative than hemp grown for grain, netting between $20 and $45 per pound depending on its quality, Michael Fields Executive Director Perry Brown said.
The institute’s research and observations found hemp struggled in wet conditions. Pounding rains that later hardened the soil made it difficult for the plants to out-compete weeds as corn and soybeans can do, he said.
Challenges posed by the growing season were evident in a field of CBD oil plants awaiting harvest. Some were full of branches and stood nearly 7 feet tall. Others were single, 2-foot stalks.
The big plants might net 5 or 6 pounds of hemp seed pods. The small ones would be lucky to get a half pound, Brown said.
Weather was one issue. A lack of proper equipment was another.
Bryan Parr, a Legacy Hemp agronomist whose company is one of a handful of hemp seed providers for Wisconsin farmers, said many farmers used outdated planting equipment that buried seeds too deep.
Harvesting went smoother than expected—hemp fiber is tough and can easily get tangled inside a combine if harvested improperly. One farmer who did have problems didn’t listen to Legacy’s instructions to clip only the grain head instead of trying to capture the entire stalk.
That person had to torch a hole in their combine just to remove the fiber, Parr said.
Legacy worked with about 25 farmers across the state. Four of them gave up on their hemp crops because they were overtaken by weeds. The plants were there, but they weren’t worth the effort to harvest, he said.
“I think every farmer has been disappointed so far,” Parr said. “There have only been two or three farmers that have actually had a decent crop to harvest. Even those guys were somewhat disappointed for the sake of it’s been such a struggle with weather this year.”
Farmers who tried hemp this year wanted to diversify their incomes.That corn and soybean prices have been stuck in a lengthy rut generated plenty of hemp interest, according to statistics from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
The state distributed 242 grower licenses and 99 processor licenses, a one-time requirement. Most of them also registered to do business during the inaugural year, and state farmers planted nearly 1,900 acres of hemp, DATCP spokeswoman Donna Gilson said.
Locally, the state issued three grower licenses to farmers in Rock County and nine in Walworth County. There are two farmers with processor licenses in Rock and none in Walworth, she said.
The state did not differentiate between grain hemp and CBD oil hemp acreage. Those growing for CBD oil faced a scare at planting season when state Attorney General Brad Schimel threatened to disallow its production and distribution, saying sales and distribution could be done only by doctors.
Schimel reversed his position the next week.
Legacy does not grow hemp for CBD oil, but Parr suspects hemp might have legal hurdles to overcome despite Schimel’s reversal.
Some agriculture lenders refused to allow their farmers to grow hemp. UW-Madison opted not to do research out of fear it could lose federal research money, Parr said.
Right now, hemp production is considered illegal by the federal government despite being allowed in many states. The next federal farm bill includes a provision to regulate hemp production, but the bill’s passage has been delayed several times as Congress battles over food stamps.
Hemp will likely never supplant corn or soybeans as Wisconsin’s primary commodity crop. Right now, its advocates are just hopeful it can carve out a niche as a rotational crop.
But it still has a long way to go.
Federal legalization would be a momentous step forward. Hemp is a cousin to marijuana and was outlawed years ago, even though it contains only trace amounts of psychoactive substances.
Wisconsin, once a major hemp producer, must rebuild its processing infrastructure. The state will need more hemp buyers and suppliers if it ever wants to scale up the crop’s acreage.
Legacy is considering locations for a processing plant, but it’s waiting to see if the market expands, Parr said.
One year ago, he talked to “hundreds” of farmers who were interested but wanted to see how things went in 2018. The tough conditions and inability to prove hemp as profitable mean many will still be cautious going forward, he said.
Gilson wasn’t sure if interest would wane next year. Brown thinks many farmers will return and that the crop has plenty of potential as long as its market proliferates.
Hughes plans on giving it another chance. Hemp fit in nicely with the other specialty crops the family grows on its farm south of Janesville.
Despite the challenging growing season, he called this summer an “important lesson learned.”
As the World Series winds to a close, Hughes used a baseball analogy to describe his mindset.
“Obviously you want to hit a home run. Who doesn’t want to hit a home run on the first year? But I did curb my expectations a bit because I knew it was going to be a challenge. Am I disappointed? A little bit.
“But I prepared myself. I wanted to do this not necessarily for financial reasons but for the knowledge. I wanted to learn and become a better farmer. I think I did that, even if on the first year I didn’t hit it out of the park.”
A gunman who is believed to have spewed anti-Semitic slurs and rhetoric on social media entered a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday and opened fire, killing 11 people in one of the deadliest attacks on Jews in U.S. history.
The 20-minute attack at Tree of Life Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood left six others wounded, including four police officers who dashed to the scene, authorities said.
The suspect, Robert Bowers, traded gunfire with police and was shot several times. Bowers, who was in fair condition at a hospital, was expected to face federal hate-crime charges.
“Please know that justice in this case will be swift and it will be severe,” Scott Brady, the chief federal prosecutor in western Pennsylvania, said at a late-afternoon news conference, characterizing the slaughter as a “terrible and unspeakable act of hate.”
The mass shooting came amid a rash of high-profile attacks in an increasingly divided country, one day after a Florida man was arrested and charged with mailing a series of pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and little more than a week before the midterm elections.
The killings also immediately reignited the longstanding national debate about guns: President Donald Trump said the outcome might have been different if the synagogue “had some kind of protection” from an armed guard, while Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf noted that once again “dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way.”
Trump said he planned to travel to Pittsburgh but offered no details.
Authorities say that just before 10 a.m., Bower entered the large synagogue with an assault-style rifle and three handguns. Three separate congregations were conducting Sabbath services in different areas of the large building, according to Michael Eisenberg, the immediate past president of the Tree of Life. The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office said it was told by victims that a brit milah—a ritual circumcision ceremony at which a baby boy also receives his Hebrew name—was also taking place, though law enforcement officials later said no children were among the dead or wounded.
“It is a very horrific crime scene,” said a visibly moved Wendell Hissrich, the Pittsburgh public safety director. “It’s one of the worst that I’ve seen.”
The survivors included Daniel Leger, 70, a nurse and hospital chaplain who was in critical condition after undergoing surgery, his brother, Paul Leger, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Daniel Leger was scheduled to lead a service Saturday morning, he said.
The mass shooting raised immediate alarm in Jewish communities around the country. Authorities in New York City, Chicago and elsewhere increased security at Jewish centers.
Bob Jones, head of the FBI’s Pittsburgh office, said that worshippers “were brutally murdered by a gunman targeting them simply because of their faith,” though he cautioned the shooter’s full motive was not yet known. In a statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Justice Department would file hate crime and other charges against Bowers.
Bowers, who had no apparent criminal record, expressed virulently anti-Semitic views on a social media site called Gab, according to an Associated Press review of an archived version of the posts made under his name. The cover photo for his account featured a neo-Nazi symbol, and his recent posts included a photo of a fiery oven like those used in Nazi concentration camps used to cremate Jews during World War II.
Other posts referenced false conspiracy theories suggesting the Holocaust—in which an estimated 6 million Jews perished—was a hoax. He wrote of a Jewish “infestation,” using a slur for Jews.
Gab confirmed Bowers had a profile on its website, which is popular with far-right extremists.
Before the shooting, the poster believed to be Bowers also wrote that “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
HIAS is a nonprofit group that helps refugees around the world find safety and freedom. The organization says it is guided by Jewish values and history.
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League, said the group believes Saturday’s attack was the deadliest on the Jewish community in U.S. history.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “heartbroken and appalled” by the attack.
“The entire people of Israel grieve with the families of the dead,” Netanyahu said. “We stand together with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh. We stand together with the American people in the face of this horrendous anti-Semitic brutality. And we all pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded.”
Thousands of people, some holding candles, gathered for a vigil in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Saturday night in honor of the victims, whose names were not immediately released. A chant of “vote, vote, vote” broke out during the emotional gathering. Some attendees blamed the shooting on the nation’s political climate and said they took little solace in the planned visit by Trump.
At a political rally in Murphysboro, Illinois, Trump said “the evil anti-Semitic attack is an assault on all of us.”
The president—who has been accused by critics of failing to adequately condemn hate, such as when he blamed “both sides” for the violence at a Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist rally in 2017—said that anti-Semitism must be “confronted and condemned everywhere it rears it very ugly head.” He called for the imposition of the death penalty for “crimes like this.”
The synagogue is located in the tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and the hub of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. The facade of the fortress-like concrete building is punctuated by rows of swirling, modernistic stained-glass windows illustrating the story of creation, the acceptance of God’s law, the “life cycle” and “how human-beings should care for the earth and one another,” according to its website. Among its treasures is a “Holocaust Torah,” rescued from Czechoslovakia.
Its sanctuary can hold up to 1,250 people.
Eisenberg, the former synagogue president, said officials at Tree of Life had not gotten any threats that he knew of before the shooting. But he said security was a concern, and the synagogue had started working to improve it.
Chuck Diamond, a former rabbi at the synagogue who retired more than a year ago, said the building is locked during the week, and is outfitted with security cameras. “But on Sabbath it’s an open door,” he said.
“You know, you’re always worried that something would happen,” said Myron Snider, head of the cemetery committee for New Light Congregation, which meets at Tree of Life. Snider just got out of the hospital Thursday and missed Saturday’s service.
“But you never dream that it would happen like this,” Snider added. “Just never ever dream that it would happen like this.”
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