Lilly Springs Farm’s venture into the hemp boom
When lawmakers passed legislation that legalized hemp and CBD products in Wisconsin, a new world opened up for local farmers. Though some legal lines are blurred, and the market is questionable, Osceola farm manager, Drew Slevin, and farm assistant, Elle Sullivan, of Lily Springs Farm are seeing promise in their second year in the Wisconsin hemp-farming boom.
“I want farmers to be successful,” says Slevin. “That’s actually a big part of why we got into farming hemp. As a farm, we’re really concerned about land management practices on private land. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in this industry to make sensible choices and build an economy that will serve us.”
Last year, Lily Springs started with a one-acre plot of textile variety hemp, often used for clothing, furniture, shoes and other products. Jumping into a brand new crop, Slevin and Sullivan hoped for prosperity, but prepared themselves for a possible letdown.
“It was our first year we were doing it, and the first year Wisconsin was doing it, so it was super exciting, but it really underperformed,” says Slevin. “Because of that, we really didn’t have high expectations for this year, but we wanted to see what we could do. So, we came up with a plan to protect [the plants] from weeds, prepared for unpredictable weather, and they absolutely blew our minds.”
In their second year, Lily Springs Farm’s hemp crop far surpassed the expectations that were created from a disappointing first year. It did so well, in fact, that more than a dozen workers were brought in to keep up with cultivation. Because of this somewhat experimental period, however, other problems arose when one half of the new crop tested “hot” according to Slevin.
“The term ‘hot’ is in the vernacular of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture,” he explained. “The allowable range for a cannabis plant to be considered industrial hemp has to be below 0.3 percent THC. So, this one tested over the allowable limit and we got a notice to destroy these 1200 plants.”
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the active ingredient in marijuana, the cousin of hemp that is still illegal in the state of Wisconsin. As of 2019, Wisconsin is one of 17 states that have not legalized marijuana in one form or another, making it a tedious process for hemp farmers to walk within the lines of the law. While losing half your crop seems devastating, Sullivan explains that preparation and experimentation mean the impacts aren’t quite so damaging.
“It would be devastating if we had only planted this variety,” she says. “Because we are a permaculture based farm, all of our systems, even when we are just trialing a new crop, are done with resiliency built in. So, we had two varieties: Siskiyou Gold and Frosted Lime. The Siskiyou performed excellently, so before the testing results came back, we had already shifted our attention to the Siskiyou and the frosted lime we had to destroy.”
An end goal for Lily Springs, along with many other local hemp farmers, is to provide the raw material for cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is the non-psychoactive ingredient in the cannabis plant that has been used recently to treat many ailments including depression, anxiety, joint pain, seizures and more. Since its legalization in 2014, the market for CBD has become a sort of “wild west,” but the market for its products are in a boom creating plenty of opportunity for Wisconsin farmers.
“For local farmers that are trying to grow the healthiest food and products that they can for the community, I think these CBD plants could be it,” says Slevin. “They’re broadly useful and as restrictions loosen up from the state, there is a market for their leaves, their roots, their stalks, their stems, their flowers – they really are incredible plants.”