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Day-long industrial hemp forum coming to town

Posted on July 6, 2000

August workshop at Coughlin Center will to delve into feasibility, promise, problems of controversial crop

By Alex Hummel, The Northwestern

Oshkosh, Wisconsin — Growing fields of industrial hemp as freely as corn or soybeans is a controversial idea that just won’t go away, said Winnebago County Board Supervisor Nancy Barker.

Instead of keeping tight-lipped and in the dark, the grandmother, Menasha city councilor and agriculturally-minded county supervisor reasons, “Why not talk about it?”

“I don’t really know much about it either,” Barker said, citing a general lack of knowledge of the plant many people think is synonymous with marijuana. “It’s a controversial subject, I’ll say that.”

On Aug. 22, the James P. Coughlin Center, 625 E. County Trunk Y, will host a conference splaying out the facts, the fictions, the promises and the problems behind industrial hemp — a plant that is still illegal to grow, let alone reap as a cash crop, in the U.S.

The one-day conference will bring farmers, law enforcement officials, health department administrators and representatives of state and federal legislatures to the table to talk about the future of industrial hemp.

While the illegal plant has raised the hopes of some farmers, it has raised the ire of the law enforcement community.

Almost a dead-ringer for marijuana plants, police fear fields of legalized industrial hemp would conceal patches of illegal cannabis. Cannabis contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the drug chemical in marijuana.

The State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse also opposes the manufacture of industrial hemp, claiming its legalization would only confuse the same young people health officials are trying to dissuade from using marijuana.

On the other side of the argument, farmers and agricultural futurists argue industrial hemp is chemically and physically different enough from its cousin marijuana to not pose any drug threat. The low-THC plant is prized for its strong fibers.

Some believe that as an alternative crop, industrial hemp could revolutionize farming with its easy-to-plant and easy-to-grow nature. It grows in a variety of soils and climates and was actually a boon for Wisconsin in the 1940s as the U.S. surged into World War II.

Barker wields a 1942 pamphlet published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison boldly stating “Our armies and allies need hemp.” The pamphlet foreshadows a boost of hemp production in Wisconsin to 40,000 acres by 1943.

Federal laws have since ground U.S. hemp to a halt. Industrial hemp remains illegal to grow, despite a cascade of products in the last decade using imported fibers and oil to make everything from shoes to soap to clothing.

A recent round of milk-dumping protests in the state is another reminder that farmers could use a financially viable third crop beyond corn and soybeans, Barker said. She said she wants local farmers and officials to be ready should the federal restrictions, legal taboos and public perceptions of industrial hemp change in coming years.

Pundits claim that if federal and state legislation opened doors, industrial hemp could raise between $200 and $700 an acre if crops yielded World War II-like harvests.

“All we want to do is put the facts out in front of people,” Barker said in support of the conference. “Obviously, we’ve got to do something to find an alternative crop or all of our farms will go under.”

Barker said state agriculture committee Chairman Rep. Al Ott, R-Forest Junction, will attend the conference as will a representative from U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl’s office.

Glacierland, the conference sponsor, is one of six rural development and conservation organizations in the state. Winnebago County is a member of the regional organization which includes Outagamie, Brown, Fond du Lac, Calumet, Kewaunee, Manitowoc and Sheboygan Counties and the Oneida Nation.

The organization had originally planned the conference for April, but Barker said a pending state convention in Green Bay made August a better choice for the more specific discussion of industrial hemp.

Sue Kastensen, a Westby entrepreneur who uses hemp oil in beauty products, will attend, Barker said.

Kastensen started Sue’s Amazing Lip Stuff, a business banking on lip balm made with hemp oil. The business grew from a grass-roots refiller of relatives’ empty Carmex jars to the force behind Sundog Hemp Body Care, a line of shampoos, soaps and body creams using hemp oil.

“A lot of people in our particular market are pretty educated about hemp,” said Beth Unger, a business partner with Kastensen. “Until it’s a process of education, however, we do make available to stores little hemp booklets saying, ‘Why use hemp oil?’ taking about the health benefits and what not. We do that because as a user of hemp seed oil, it’s our responsibility to let people know. ”

Unger said Kastensen was still awaiting word from Barker on what experience she can bring to the forum.

“I think this is going to be an initial experience for Sue,” Unger said. “It’s great that Wisconsin is looking into this.”

Copyright © 2000, The Northwestern. All rights reserved.