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Industrial hemp

Michael Fields Agricultural Institute executive director Perry Brown inspects an industrial hemp plant for signs of mold, decay and pests last fall.

Seeking to boost struggling farmers, Gov. Tony Evers’ budget provides support for programs to help industrial hemp farmers improve their operations and assist county conservation officers.

That will take some of the pressure off the UW Extension, which has struggled to staff ag agents at many of their county offices after deep cuts in recent years to the UW System budget.

The cuts came amid escalating farm closures due to continued low prices for milk, corn, soybeans and other commodities as well as weather problems. In 2018, the state led the nation in farm bankruptcies for the third straight year and had the highest rate of farm closures this century.

The proposal also calls for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to create three full-time-equivalent jobs and realign two other existing full-time positions within the department to help boost the state’s fledgling industrial hemp program. It also is budgeting $300,000 toward purchasing laboratory equipment for the program.

State lawmakers in 2017 gave farmers the go-ahead to start growing industrial hemp last year. But the program has been hampered by delays getting farmers their licenses and mandatory testing, mostly because of the immense interest in growing the crop. Wisconsin was a hemp stronghold before the crop was banned more than 50 years ago.

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More than 300 farmers applied for licenses to grow industrial hemp last year, which was three times more than predicted.

The governor wants to reallocate $200,000 from existing state funds for grants that will help farmers who want to switch to potentially more profitable organic dairy or beef operations. The grants will be for education and training programs run by DATCP. The proposal also adds a full-time-equivalent position within DATCP for an organic and grazing specialist.

The hard-hit state dairy industry also will get some important money if the governor’s proposal is approved. It wants to spend $200,000 each year for grants that will help small dairy processors modernize and expand their operations and another $200,000 to help promote dairy exports through the Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports.

Finally, the proposal calls for spending $200,000 annually for the Farm to School grant program, $100,000 annually for the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin grant program and $100,000 annually to provide mental health assistance to farmers and their families.

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