Joseph Rothberger stood in the field of the crop he seeded back in June on the Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) Reservation and he looked proud.
Surrounding Rothberger was hemp, some 4 or 5 feet tall, and intermixed in the rows of hemp were marigold flowers and other rows, some basil and if you looked closer he could point out sage, cilantro and stalks of dried dill.
On Monday, Sept. 27, Rothberger was host to an open house for the LCO Ojibwa College Hemp Research Project, where a half-acre of ground was planted with 10 varieties of hemp and other plants planted between the 14 rows.
The hemp and other plants are part of $220,000 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Companion Planting and Economic Feasibility of Cultivating Hemp research grant the college received. The object of the three-year study is to see if the companion plants — marigold, basil, sage, cilantro and dill — have a positive impact on the hemp.
Since 2009, Rothberger has been working in Colorado in the medical and recreation side of cannabis, and then last year he moved back to Wisconsin to do applied research in Sawyer County. He was hired by the college in May as agricultural hemp manager.
Seedlings were planted June 15 and some of the plants have already reached 5 feet. The companion plants, those planted between the rows of hemp, are also called a "treatment."
"The idea is each treatment is measured through the season to see (if) the beneficial insects each plant attracts provide additional benefits to the hemp growing from a terpene (organic compounds that create the unique aroma of different strains of hemp plants) standpoint, and from a yielding standpoint and from a pest resistance standpoint," he said. All of these are being measured to see if they're actually feasible to interplant with hemp.
The hemp being grown at LCO looks like marijuana that is illegal to use in Wisconsin, but it's not the same thing.
"It smells like marijuana and it looks like marijuana but it's marijuana's cousin," Rothberger said.
Under the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp plants producing under 3% of THC, the compound that gets people high, is allowed.
The varieties being grown at LCO are genetic strains for making cannabidiol (CBD) oil, oil that might have medicinal benefits.
Looking closer, each of the hemp plants has its own tag/label to track its individual production.
The obstacle to growing hemp "at the 46th parallel," the current latitude of Sawyer County north of the equator, he said, is the short growing season. Of the 10 varieties, some have grown well and others are barely a foot tall.
This year the objective is to identify the varieties better suited to Sawyer County and then next year to grow more acreage with those.
One thing that has made a huge impact on hemp growth is the black plastic or ground cover between the hemp plants, which discourages weeds. Hemp grown without the tarp is much shorter.
One of the hardships for growing the hemp without a nearby well is that Rothberger and his helper have had to water the plants by hand. He believes next year if he has a better source of water the plants will be even taller.
"With better watering they are not going to be 14-feet tall but they might reach 7 or 8 feet tall," he said.
As the companion plants are harvested they are weighed and measured. He recently weighed 92 pounds of marigolds taken from the field.
"I'm not sure if marigolds have any marketable value," he said.
However, the other companion plants are prized when freshly harvested for cooking.
Dr. Shelby Ellison, an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture at University of Wisconsin-Madison, is overseeing the project. He has given directions on planting and will be taking samples in October that will be analyzed.
The hemp plants will be cut and hanged to dry and the leaves removed when the right moisture content is achieved, and the stems and leaves will be removed for processing in partnership with the Moe Lake Tribe that will do the CBD extraction.
"They will give us our results how we did from a yield standpoint," he said.
The three-year study will also help the tribe determine whether hemp can be grown economically for CBD production.