Janet Gamble is still trying to understand the intricacies of hemp.
The learning curve will likely continue through fall. She is one of 180 Wisconsin growers legally growing hemp for the first time since World War II.
Gamble is the co-owner of Turtle Creek Gardens, a vegetable farm outside Delavan that grows produce for farmers markets and operates a community-supported agriculture program.
Last year, Wisconsin joined more than 30 other states by legalizing hemp production. As the legislation progressed, hemp advocates said the high-value crop could boost an agriculture industry beset with sagging finances.
Shuttered dairies and low corn and soybean prices have received the bulk of media attention, but even small vegetable farms such as Turtle Creek Gardens are struggling.
The farm has about 20 acres of vegetables and another 80 acres of pasture, used for hog and cattle grazing. Turtle Creek’s size gives it little wiggle room to deal with financial pressure, Gamble said.
The farm’s community-supported agriculture program, essentially a retail outlet, has lost popularity. Turtle Creek sells some wholesale product to restaurants and grocers in the greater Milwaukee area, but the farm isn’t big enough to make wholesale its primary focus, she said.
While community-supported agriculture helped introduce people to sustainable food movements, it also gave non-farmers the knowledge they needed to eat healthier without buying into a program. And it’s not as convenient as signing up for preportioned meals from online vendors such as Blue Apron, Gamble said.
“The CSA is really hurting. It’s a declining market,” Gamble said. “It’s forced us to look for other things to grow. That’s why we got into the hemp.”
Turtle Creek is planting five acres of grain hemp, which primarily goes toward food. That includes different types of oil and hemp hearts, a shelled, protein-rich garnish that can complement cereal or yogurt, Gamble said.
The farm also transported 400 hemp plants from Colorado. These will be harvested for everything from oils to vaping products, she said.
The hemp for grain is farmed and harvested mechanically, similar to typical cash crops. But the transported plants will require manual labor.
In a plot at the far edge of the vegetable field, the premature stalks are planted far apart from each other. They will grow bushy and reach several feet in height, necessitating the wide spaces amid the rows.
When the stalks are ready, workers will chop them down, hang them and let them dry—a process similar to tobacco. The extra labor makes the transports expensive, but their payoff could be lucrative. Gamble is hoping to net $1,000 per plant.
The farm will also have to give the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection a 30-day notice before it harvests so the state can test the crops’ THC levels, Gamble said.
Hemp is a cousin to marijuana, but its THC content is far below marijuana’s psychoactive threshold.
Turtle Creek is one of eight licensed hemp growers in Walworth County. There are three in Rock County, plus two processors, said state agriculture communications specialist Donna Gilson.
The state approved 356 grower and processor applications. Only one applicant was denied based on a prior drug conviction. Some of the applications are still gathering necessary paperwork or might not start until next year, she said.
“We were expecting a lot of applications based on the level of interest we were getting even before the law was passed,” Gilson said. “But I don’t think we were expecting 350 based on other states’ experiences. But we knew they were going to be a lot.”
Wisconsin still has to rebuild its hemp processing infrastructure so it can convert hemp into fiber. Gamble thinks more farmers will try the crop once the market expands.
It’s something she supports. Turtle Creek is planning a hemp field day in August, when Gamble and representatives from Connoils, the farm’s Waukesha-based hemp buyer, will share info about the crop.
“When you have a little farm like this and all these other growers are struggling to have markets and do things, I think we need to work together more and be stronger as a collective,” she said.