Hemp Manager Provides Detailed Update as Harvest Nears
As hot summer days turn into cooler fall weather, the annual crop harvest season is upon us. That is the case with the experimental hemp plot planted on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation. This small research plot was managed by Joseph Rothberger, Agricultural Hemp Manager for Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College in connection with a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Tribal College Research Grant Program for the Economic Feasibility of Companion Plantings and Industrial Hemp; a three year grant bringing in $220,000 in funds to make this project possible.
This project is in partnership with the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the University of Wisconsin Madison, overseen by Dr. Shelby Ellison who has multiple research plots growing around the state, with an emphasis on variety and companion planting trials.
The goal of this grant was to research what would grow well here in Sawyer County, with its shortened growing season of just over 4 months of frost free days in which to cultivate the hemp.
The variety trials of the hemp consisted of 10 different cultivars selected for their low THCa, which is required to be under 3% as per the Farm Bill of 2018 which allows for the production of Cannabis; and high ratio of CBD, the active cannabinoid that has been proven to reduce anxiety and inflammation although not yet certified by the FDA.
Rothberger, who has over 10 years of legal commercial cannabis production joined LCO Ojibwe College in May, bringing his production expertise. With most of his recent experience being in medical and recreational marijuana production startups the transition to hemp for research has been seamless. “Our season started here in May when I joined the college, and within a few short weeks I was able to secure a license and begin cultivation of just over an acre plot.”
Even though the behind the scenes work started a few years back with all the legal compliance from the Tribe as well as administration for budgetary constraints being set in motion he went on to say “It takes a whole community to put together something of this caliber, and I am thankful to be a part of it.”
Like any new agricultural endeavor there are lessons to be learned and hurdles to jump over before it is deemed a success or failure, Rothberger explained.
“The season was one of sporadic rainfalls, with all four months coming in a below average rainfalls for the area which presented a challenge with regards to getting the plants well rooted in the ground,” Rothberger stated.
Rothberger, who was primarily in charge of the field, had supplemental help coming from Charlie Braeger, a short term employee of the college who provided critical additional help throughout the growing season. Charlie and Joe together kept the plants watered and happy so they were able to grow to their full potential.
Although the USDA grant had more availability for labor to be allocated to the project there were a limited number of interested applicants in the beginning of this season.
“I am hoping that in the years that will follow more people will see what we are doing here and want to join in to help the project. I think farming hemp is a great deal of fun, and just about everyone is capable of learning how to produce hemp legally,” Rothberger said.
In addition to the hemp being planted in the field there was also a bulk of companion plants inter-planted between the rows. These crops consisted of Marigolds, Cilantro, Sage, Dill and Basil. There were also a few dozen squash plants, cosmos and sunflowers filling in the gaps of the field. Although not part of the companion trials, these crops were added for their aesthetic value, and impact on the ecology of the pollinators within the area.
As early October rolls in, the majority of the plants have reached heights of five feet or better, and have made the transition to full bloom. At this stage the smell, or the terpenes produced from the plant, are very similar to marijuana, which is above the 3% threshold allowed by the 2018 Farm Bill.
“To the naked eye it looks like marijuana and smells like marijuana and requires testing to be able to distinguish between the two,” Rothberger explained. “As we get closer to our harvest date, the plants having passed THC testing will be cut down, measured for research and hung to dry in preparations for post production, which will be done off site. The extraction process will separate the oils from the plant matter and then be added into supplemental products for their CBD content,” said Rothberger.
According to Rothberger, as the first growing season is being concluded, the following years for the grant will hopefully provide better insight to the potential for growing hemp and the yields and costs associated with production in the area for CBD extraction.
If you would like more information or are interested in participating in the project through volunteer work or employment in the next growing season, please reach out to Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College Extension Office or Agricultural Hemp Manager Joseph Rothberger at - email@example.com.
Joe Rothberger pictured here with Thi Li, the LCO Tribe's Hemp Consultant.