You’d think Jonathan Baker would have been California dreaming on a late October day.
After all, several acres of Baker’s hemp crop on a rural Whitewater hillside were in limbo. Baker was awaiting testing to learn whether a late October snowfall had damaged or destroyed hemp still in a field just east of the Koshkonong hills.
Baker, 29, moved back to Fort Atkinson this year after spending a decade in northern California, where he’d built a life as a cannabis activist and small-scale grower of legal cannabis strains for therapeutic use.
Last week, Baker’s hemp near Whitewater was harvest ready. Then came the first breath of Wisconsin winter, about a month earlier than usual.
Late in the week, Baker watched out his window as white flakes fell. He and his partners had been spending 14-hour days frantically harvesting and hanging his hemp crop, about one-third of which he said got partially frozen and covered by snow. Within days, Baker said, he’d learn if the snow-bitten hemp will be suitable for commercial use.
“It’s beautifully sad,” Baker said, remarking on both the snow and on the risks and rewards inherent to commercial hemp growing.
Yet despite the recent raw weather, Baker said he’s glad he left California to bring hemp to the backyard of his Wisconsin hometown.
After the end of seven decades of prohibition under the same federal law that outlawed hemp’s cannabis cousin, marijuana, Baker believes Wisconsin is primed for growth in the agricultural hemp market.
Baker this year planted about 27 acres of dark-green hemp spread in small plots across southern Jefferson and Dane counties. The hemp plot in rural Whitewater was full of bush-sized hemp plants topped with sticky flower buds pungent in smell and rich in CBD oil—a legal, therapeutic compound that has surged in popularity and made hemp a promising cash crop for a growing number of U.S. farmers.
In Wisconsin, nearly 900 registered growers planted hemp plots this year, mostly in small tracts tended and harvested by hand. Altogether, about 2,000 acres statewide were earmarked for licensed hemp growing in 2019, the second year the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has allowed licensed growing of commercial hemp under an agricultural pilot program.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled a new framework of rules for hemp production, which was federally legalized in 2014 under the federal Farm Bill.
The new, interim rules would make hemp farmers eligible for some federal agriculture programs such as crop insurance.
Hemp is a sturdy, hearty crop that can be lucrative to grow, particularly given a burgeoning CBD market.
But it can be tricky to grow successfully, especially in volatile climates. Hemp and the retail market niche it’s found continue to face uncertainty under federal regulations still being fleshed out by the USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Even so, it’s becoming a ballyhooed commodity in the health care market and has begun attracting large pharmaceutical corporations.
Some growers believe new federal rules might draw larger investors and companies.
But the USDA process also serves to validate risk taken by startup hemp growers at a time when hemp is beginning to turn the corner from a marginalized, niche industry to a more broadly accepted agricultural movement. That’s mainly good news for Rock County, where a small consortium of family farms has begun to make forays into hemp growing.
Later this fall, Janesville-born Simply Solutions plans to ramp up commercial processing of hemp for CBD oil in a 30,000-square-foot building the company has retrofitted along East Conde Street on Janesville’s south side.
Simply Solutions CEO John Goepfert said the company already is processing CBD oil from harvested hemp at a Janesville business incubator. Within weeks, it should be ready to receive hemp being harvested by local growers.
Simply Solutions, which uses a proprietary extraction method for hemp processing, believes it’s operating the first large-scale CBD processing facility in the region using bonafide all-natural and FDA-grade processes.
Baker said he hopes to cash in on the sale of his crop to a few national CBD processors he said he “pre-sold” to, if the October snow doesn’t put too big of a dent into his yield.
He needs to repay investors, but he also wants to invest in some hemp farming and processing equipment, he said.
Baker moved back to Wisconsin this year to try his hand at Midwest hemp after spending years in California’s redwood country, a region that’s considered the cannabis-production epicenter of the nation.
In California, Baker was fighting what he said are state and local regulations that favor larger agricultural operations and make it harder for small growers to succeed in the West Coast’s legal cannabis business.
In Wisconsin, where hemp is still a small-scale, niche industry, Baker was granted a state hemp growing license. He operates under his limited liability corporation TFP (Truth, Freedom and Prosperity) Sciences.
Baker said he’s working with the city of Whitewater to buy a building where he wants to set up an indoor growing facility and lab and eventually “go vertical” with “high-end production.”
Ultimately, Baker said, he wants to gather together a hemp product research and development consortium to get a “scientific” approach rooted in the regional hemp industry. He thinks hemp is at home in southern Wisconsin, an area he said he considers a mostly progressive area of the state where he believes startup hemp operators might be able to find footing.
As with any major agricultural commodity, Baker said, he believe it’s a matter of time before hemp gets inhaled by what he calls “large ag.”
“Even here in Wisconsin, large ag is eventually going to push everybody out. Your best bet as a young farmer is either try to find a niche and really specialize in that or be happy even if the prices crash a lot. You’ll still be making so much more with hemp than most other crops at this point,” Baker said.
“It’s making sure you have the contracts (with processors). We’re trying to reach out and educate processors and the consumer that CBD just doesn’t mean CBD. You need to know your farmer, where it’s coming from, who’s processing it, what are their goals behind it.”
Most local hemp is intended for extraction of cannabidiol— better known as CBD—a compound that is non-intoxicating and is marketed as a health supplement.
But weather and other conditions can cause some hemp strains to over mature, causing CBD in the plants to convert to THC—the intoxicating and mind-altering compound present in hemp’s cousin, marijuana. THC continues to be an illegal, controlled substance in many states, including Wisconsin.
Most marijuana grown for recreational or medical use has a THC content of 3% to 10%, with some particularly potent pot strains containing 15% to 25% THC.
Federally legal hemp is allowed to contain just trace amounts of THC, generally not enough to cause users to become intoxicated.
Under USDA rules, hemp with more than 0.3% THC is considered “hot,” or essentially, marijuana. Under the new rules, hemp tested to be “hot” is required to be destroyed by a federal agent.
Baker said he believes those who advocate the therapeutic uses of CBD and THC are still pitted against major political and business interests in the pharmaceutical and agriculture sectors.
Baker acknowledges he bears scars from the years when some medical cannabis was legal in California but recreational use was not.
In 2011, Baker said he was among three people arrested on felony drug charges in Arcata, California, for being present at what at the time was considered an illegal, residential grow operation. The bust came at a house police reports indicate had false walls concealing 350 marijuana plants and “highly sophisticated” growing equipment. The home also was stocked with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and cash.
Baker said the court threw out evidence authorities had gathered in the raid at a house Baker claims he was only visiting for the night. Baker said he ended up pleading to misdemeanor pot possession and walked away with a fine.
Now, after the 2016 law change that made recreational THC and other cannabis legal in California, it’s unlikely Baker would face criminal charges for growing cannabis in a house.
Baker said he and a small group of other cannabis growers and activists had a hand in crafting policy that rolled into California’s cannabis legalization. He said he’s “not ashamed” of being arrested for pot, and he continues to be proud of his involvement as a cannabis activist.
He said his and others’ fights to legalize cannabis made him less averse to risk. He believes that legalization of various types of cannabis in some states has vindicated him and other earlier advocates. He believes his work with Wisconsin hemp is now legitimate farming that will give people health care choices.
“I was, like, 21 then (when arrested),” Baker said.
“I was, like, a young kid seeing people have a better quality life. And it made me continue to pursue this path to fight towards the freedom to medicate the way you want to. The only problem, the only reason why any of this was ever illegal is because Big Pharma wants to make bunch of money.”
Janesville police began a partnership with the Ring-brand video doorbell company last month.
It’s a move that has raised questions elsewhere around the country, including from those concerned about privacy and racial profiling.
Police will now be able to send messages to Ring users, asking them for videos when crimes occur near their homes, and residents can help police solve crimes by uploading their videos in Ring’s app, called Neighbors.
Police also will be able to send messages to Ring users in general and to specific users who have posted videos of interest.
Critics elsewhere have said such partnerships have potential to invade privacy, and they could encourage people to inject more racial bias in crime reporting.
Deputy Chief Terry Sheridan noted police will not be able to access residents’ videos without their permission or view the live video feeds that Ring customers can see of people who come to their doors.
And, people can submit videos to police anonymously, as they can through a CrimeStoppers tip or the P3 Tips app.
However, in rare cases, police might obtain court orders to obtain videos if needed to prove a case in court, Sheridan said.
“It seems to me they (Ring) have built in a whole lot of safeguards to protect their customers’ privacy and only make that (video) available to law enforcement if that customer chooses to do it,” Sheridan said.
As for racial bias, Sheridan said police do get that kind of call occasionally.
Janesville police are trained to question reports of suspicious persons when the only thing suspicious is the person’s race.
“Most of the time, we’re probably not going to respond,” to such a call with no additional information, Sheridan said.
The officer would call for more information, but lacking specifics, there would be no response, Sheridan said.
“We train to try and recognize these kinds of calls,” Sheridan said. “We certainly don’t want to expose somebody to danger just because we didn’t show up, but at same time we have to try to be sure we don’t fall into somebody else’s bias.”
More than 400 police departments nationwide have formed similar connections with Ring, according to news reports.
Janesville police got involved after a retired Wisconsin police chief who now works for Ring reached out to Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore, Sheridan said.
Ring offers no financial incentive for police to sign up, Sheridan said. Ring occasionally makes contributions, and police recently asked for a Ring video doorbell, which police gave away at a CrimeStoppers run.
Critics also say Ring plays on people’s fears. Crime is on a long-term downward trend in Janesville, as it is nationwide. Janesville’s 2018 crime rate was the second-lowest in 20 years.
“It really has nothing to do with any increase in crime or anything like that,” Sheridan said. “We see it as just another tool that we can use to help solve crimes in town.”
Sheridan said Ring won’t tell police how many Ring users live in Janesville.
“It all has to do with the privacy of the Ring users, which I get,” Sheridan said.
“We don’t know who has cameras unless we go to their house and see a Ring camera, and we don’t have access to anybody’s video unless they give it to us,” Sheridan said.
Police will see videos that people voluntarily upload to the Neighbors app in Janesville, just as all other users can do.
Police will be able to select an area of the city where video might show evidence of a crime and make requests for video only from homes in that area for a specific timeframe. Ring relays the request to its customers, and police have no idea who it’s going to, Sheridan said.
Police always have knocked on doors in the area where a crime has occurred, Sheridan said, and that won’t stop because of this new tool.
And police still will issue requests for help on its Nixle app, which is picked up by news media, because lots of houses and other buildings have surveillance cameras that are not Ring.
Ring certainly seems popular. A video of a man walking up a west-side driveway for no apparent reason overnight Thursday got 442 views on the Neighbors app by the afternoon.
Not all those viewers had to be owners of a Ring doorbell, however. The company allows anyone to download the app and see everything posted within a certain radius of their home.
“We kind of like it,” Janesville retiree Joyce Little said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a real protector or anything, but it shows us who’s been at our door, and it doesn’t matter if we’re home or not. It’ll come over our telephone if we’ve had anyone at our door.”
Police have the ability to monitor the Neighbors app activity in Janesville only, Sheridan said. If police were interested in something that happened in a neighboring jurisdiction, they could not request video from those residents.
Sheridan did not know of any nearby police departments that have established a similar relationship with Ring.
Police have the ability to focus on patrol areas in the city, so officers in a particular zone will be able to see residents’ Ring alerts only from that area. Police also will be able to see alerts from the entire city but not from outside city limits, Sheridan said.
Kenneth “Bud” Bellman
Brittany J. Chapman
Mark T. Cronin, Sr.
Kenneth Frenton Currier
Jane Eileen Helmers
Larry A. Page
Mary E. Peschl
Ray Frank Redmann
John T. Splinter
Joshua James Staller
Alva Clifford Swales
Logan Michael Tomasello
Carol J. Vitaioli
When lawmakers crafted the law legalizing marijuana in Illinois, they tried to make sure it would right what many see as past wrongs linked to the drug.
In addition to expunging hundreds of thousands of criminal records for marijuana arrests and convictions, the law’s architects added provisions meant to benefit communities that have been the most adversely affected by law enforcement’s efforts to combat the drug.
The so-called social equity provisions are expected to help black applicants, in particular, as blacks are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana, the American Civil Liberties Union found. The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, also established ways for qualified applicants to pay lower licensing fees and get business loans and technical assistance. And it earmarked part of marijuana sales revenue for neighborhood development grants.
“On the surface, its tone and what it’s trying to do is ahead of any state that’s done this. They’re really setting off in the right way,” said Kayvan Khalatbari, a board member of Minority Cannabis Business Association, which has composed model laws outlining social equity programs. He added that follow-through will be key: “We can’t just set this in motion and set it free.”
Companies that apply for a license to sell marijuana will be judged on a 250-point scale, and those that qualify as social equity applicants will get a 50-point bump.
There are three ways to qualify. First, the organization applying must be majority-owned by a person who has lived at least five of the past 10 years in an impoverished area where there have been higher-than-average numbers of marijuana arrests. Second, the majority owner or an immediate family member must have an arrest or conviction of a marijuana offense eligible for expungement. Finally, for a company with at least 10 employees, more than half must qualify in one of the first two ways.
Illinois is the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana. Cannabis sales could generate $250 million for the state by 2022 and $375 million in 2024, according to the state Revenue Department. Campaigning on legalization last year, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker predicted the industry could eventually bring in up to $1 billion in annual revenue.
Other states that legalized pot established equity programs, but none has distinguished itself yet. Massachusetts has one, but all but two of its 184 licenses to sell pot were issued to white operators. California created a $10 million fund to go toward helping social equity applicants finance marijuana startups, but critics derided the amount as paltry.
The legalization ballot question that Michigan voters approved last fall requires the state to “positively impact” damage done by anti-marijuana law enforcement, but such vague parameters leave a lot to bureaucratic interpretation, though officials announced in July that dispensary-operator licenses would cost up to 60% less for qualified equity applicants.
No one knows how many Illinois applicants will pursue social equity licenses. There was no intention to set a quota, said state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, one of two Chicago Democrats who led efforts to write Illinois’ law. But after May 1, when licenses from the first pool of equity applicants will be awarded, licensing will pause to allow for an independent review of social equity participation.
Anton Seals Jr. plans to be a social equity applicant. The co-founder of the nonprofit Grow Greater Englewood attempts to turn the Chicago neighborhood’s abandoned lots into urban farms. He plans to apply for his company OURS, for Organic Urban Revitalization Solutions.
“It makes total sense for those of us, in particular, who have been doing work in the community to transform and to revive and restore spaces that have been impacted by poor public policy,” Seals said. “Groups like mine ... should have a really fair shot to get into this industry, to compete.”
Critical are low-interest loans from what proponents estimate will be a $30 million fund to jump-start social equity operations. What held back underserved applicants in other states is that they “didn’t have the capital and they didn’t have the acumen,” said Khalatbari, of the Minority Cannabis Business Association.
The money will come from medical cannabis operators, which, because they’re established, get the first crack at the recreational licenses being awarded this fall. It’s not cheap. A dispensing-outlet license requires a contribution of up to $100,000 to the loan fund, based on recent sales. A cultivator pays up to $750,000.
Some are skeptical it will be enough. Willie “J.R.” Fleming, director of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign and a hopeful social-equity applicant, helped organize the nonprofit Hemp in the Hood to ask established marijuana companies “to share their wealth.”
“Not always in cash, but in resources,” Fleming said, suggesting they share lawyers, accountants, security consultants and more with equity applicants because they got a jump on the market—and because, Fleming adds, they don’t want to be on the wrong side of minority empowerment.
The Rev. Ira Acree, who ministers in Chicago’s large west-side neighborhood of Austin, is unconvinced about the social equity provision, calling it a way “to give cover to the government.”
“It’s not workable. People’s lives have been destroyed. Financial records are non-existent,” Acree said.
“People who have the ability or the interest from our community can’t compete with the big boys who have accountants and attorneys and A-1 credit. They don’t have the resources or the credit or the connections.”