On a steamy June day, Jake Bainbridge steered his planter through a dirt field at his familyâ€™s farm west of Darlington, Wis.
The machine lumbered over sheets of black plastic that stretched across the acreage, poking an evenly spaced line of holes in its wake.
Behind the planter, two hired hands plucked young hemp plants from trays and inserted the seedlings into the newly opened earth.
â€śYouâ€™ve got to baby them,â€ť Bainbridge said. â€śBut once theyâ€™re in the ground, they do their own thing. â€¦ Itâ€™s just like another weed.â€ť
The sight, and smell, of what appears to be marijuana growing in the open might, at first glance, alarm passersby. But these plants are not flouting the law.
Wisconsin farmers are in the heart of the hemp-growing season, marking the second year they can cultivate the crop legally after decades of prohibition.
The state instituted a pilot growing program in 2017, but the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill in December reclassified hemp as an agricultural commodity, opening the door to interstate commerce of the crop and its derivative products.
Bainbridge intends to grow more than 40,000 hemp plants on 20 acres of farmland â€” cultivation by an individual on a scale not seen in Wisconsin for more than 50 years.
Hemp has more than 25,000 identified uses, ranging from fuel to textiles to building materials to food to personal hygiene products. One of the most lucrative commodities is cannabidiol, or CBD, just one of more than 100 chemical compounds contained in the cannabis plant.
Unlike THC â€” the compound responsible for giving marijuana users a trademark â€śhighâ€ť â€” CBD does not cause intoxication or euphoria. But CBD proponents believe it has numerous health benefits.
While both hemp and marijuana are from the same genus of plants â€”cannabis â€” the new federal definition considers the plant hemp if it contains less than 0.3% THC.
Faced with low commodity prices and uncertain international trade markets, many farmers in the tri-state region are intrigued by hempâ€™s potential.
Some in the agricultural industry envision a future where hemp takes a place as a â€śthird crop,â€ť standing next to corn and soybeans as economic staples of the Midwest.
But in an emerging and largely unregulated marketplace where familiarity with hemp cultivation is limited, the uncertainty has given some pause.
â€śEverybody is kind of out there feeling in the dark,â€ť said Platteville, Wis., farmer Brady Vondra. â€śIf youâ€™re going to get good at it, you better get good at it fast.â€ť
States across the country are in different stages of developing hemp-growing programs.
Wisconsin and Illinois developed pilots under the 2014 Farm Bill and will submit updated plans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to align their programs with the new farm bill.
In May, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the Iowa Hemp Act, which paves the way for the creation of the stateâ€™s first hemp-growing program. State officials are developing a plan and expect the program to be in operation in 2020.
In a statement, Reynolds declared that Iowa has begun the process of â€śentering a new marketplace.â€ť
Commercial hemp sales in the United States in 2018 topped $1 billion, according to the Hemp Business Journal, which also predicts that the hemp-derived CBD market will be the primary driver of global industry growth.
The journal estimates that by 2022, domestic CBD sales will top $2.3 billion, but some industry analysts have set the bar at $22 billion.
Illinois, which is in its first legal growing year, has issued more than 520 growing and 105 processing licenses.
â€śWe have been pleasantly surprised with the amount of interest,â€ť said Jeff Cox, bureau chief of medicinal plants at the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
In Wisconsin, the state issued more than 530 processing licenses and 1,220 hemp growing licenses, for a total of nearly 16,000 registered acres. Within Crawford, Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties alone, more than 170 growing locations were registered â€” a total of about 1,200 acres.
While not all farmers who received a license will grow hemp, the state total represents a significant increase from the 2018 season, when 135 growers planted 1,850 field-acres and 22 greenhouse-acres of hemp. Eighty-two hemp processors also were registered.
By late summer, Bainbridgeâ€™s hemp plants will resemble small Christmas trees and be ready for chopping and drying.
â€śItâ€™s so sticky. When youâ€™re harvesting, youâ€™re covered in resin,â€ť he said. â€śAll the machinery gums up.â€ť
Phillip Scott, president of the Wisconsin Hemp Farmers and Manufacturers Association, said, on average, farmers plant between 1,000 to 2,000 CBD plants per acre, yielding from 1,000 to 10,000 pounds of hemp on a dry weight basis.
Standardized prices do not exist yet for industrial hemp and its derivatives. However, the higher the CBD content the more profitable the crop.
For each percentage increase, hempâ€™s value can rise $3 to $5 per pound, according to Bainbridge.
In 2018, Ryan and his wife and business partner, Ashlee Bainbridge, produced a crop that had up to 17% CBD content.
They will have their hemp processed to create a CBD distillate.
Depending on the quality, farmers can net about one-half to four-fifths of a liter of CBD oil per pound of hemp, netting from $4,000 to $5,000 per liter.
The Bainbridges intend to sell it wholesale to other stores and use the extract in their own product lines at their store in Galena, Ill., called Botanicanna. Ashlee oversees the shop and in August will open a second location in Dubuque.
Although the CBD market is booming, industry experts predict that it will approach saturation within the next 10 years. They see other opportunities.
â€śThe thing that gets me the most excited is biomass, where weâ€™re extracting cellulose and sugars for fuel,â€ť said Christopher Disbro, president of the Iowa Hemp Association. â€śWeâ€™re talking about a regenerative and renewable resource grown by our farmers, where we can fundamentally shift some of the economic power and investment power into our rural communities.â€ť
The federal governmentâ€™s recent reclassification of hemp has producers excited to reseed an industry with historical roots.
Although the states of Kentucky and Wisconsin historically were the powerhouses of the hemp industry, Iowa entered the market in earnest during WWII after the Japanese military cut off fiber imports from the Philippines and Indonesia.
The federal government in 1942 urged farmers in 13 north-central Iowa counties to grow 10 acres of hemp, which was used for rope and cordage.
Local newspapers ran government advertisements, using terminology considered offensive today.
â€śEvery acre is a nail in Hitlerâ€™s coffin,â€ť one read. â€śEvery acre of hemp will blow the Jap off this earth.â€ť
Iowaâ€™s Extension Service held 85 meetings and trainings, where bulletins, pamphlets and plant samples were circulated to farmers, many of whom had never viewed hemp as anything other than â€śa weed pest on their fence lines.â€ť About 4,000 growers signed up.
Businesses like John Deere Co. and McCormick Co. developed hemp-cutting and binding machinery, which helped mechanize production.
Iowaâ€™s first crop, roughly 40,000 acres, was harvested in 1943, yielding 36 million pounds of hemp.
The following year, a crop of about 17 million pounds was harvested, but production halted after the government canceled its orders when it determined that straw tonnage was sufficient to meet its wartime needs.
Hemp mill owners and farmers saw potential in the crop, but competition from fiber flax challenged their goal of establishing a permanent market in the fabric industry.
Without securing a permanent foothold in Iowa, hemp returned to roadside ditches.
Mass cultivation was precluded by the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which prohibited the use of cannabis, including hemp, for any purpose.
Cannabis was assigned a Schedule I classification, a category that includes drugs considered to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use, such as heroin and LSD.
Growing hemp successfully in a region of the U.S. that has not seen cultivation for decades poses challenges with which producers are wrestling.
This year, Vondra took a leap into the CBD market and planted five acres of hemp.
The cost of doing so â€” $15,000 for seeds and $10,000 more for planting â€” is considerable given that he has no crop insurance to back his investment.
â€śNo bank or institution is going to loan any money at all,â€ť he said. â€śThere is an insurance policy, but itâ€™s very, very minimal. So, youâ€™re basically out here on your own.â€ť
Although recent rainy weather has him wondering whether his venture will turn soggy, the chance to be at the forefront of a new market is worth the risk, he said.
Cultivating hemp in the upper Midwest will initially be a process of trial and error, said Josh Kamps, agricultural educator at University of Wisconsin-Extension in Lafayette County.
For example, farmers must determine which pesticides are best suited for their hemp plants and how the density of their crop impacts the spread of disease.
â€śThis crop is so new itself that every aspect of it is a trial,â€ť Kamps said.
Vondra also worries that his hemp could test â€śhotâ€ť on a state-required test for THC, which must be conducted within 30 days before harvest.
If the THC content exceeds the 0.3% standard, he must destroy his entire crop.
To capitalize on consumer demand for CBD products, several specialty shops have sprouted in the Driftless region.
In May, Maquoketa, Iowa, businessman Greg Martin opened Your CBD Store, at 3339 Hillcrest Road in Dubuque. Margaret Zimmerman helps operate the business.
Within the brightly lit shop, which evokes the appearance of a modern clinic, she sells CBD-infused merchandise, sourced from states across the country. Displayed on glass shelves and tables are bath bombs, chocolates, dog treats and oil tinctures.
Her most popular ware, a CBD-infused pain cream, retails for $90.
Zimmerman, who is a nurse by training, said the products do not claim to prevent or treat a disease. Instead, they are marketed as providing â€śoverall health benefits.â€ť
â€śWhen you come into a store like this, weâ€™re not diagnosing you or prescribing,â€ť she said. â€śWeâ€™re educating you and suggesting a product you can use.â€ť
A survey conducted by Consumer Reports estimated that 64 million Americans tried CBD within the previous two years.
Zimmerman only sells to customers 18 and older. She said many are seniors who seek to alleviate pain without taking analgesic medications or desire to reduce the number of medications they currently take.
â€śAm I saying donâ€™t go to your doctor, donâ€™t take Western medication? No, never,â€ť Zimmerman said. â€śBut within a combination of CBD and Western medication, you can feel your best without being dragged down by some of the side-effects of Western medications.â€ť
During the academic year, college students form the biggest share of customers at The Hive, a CBD store located in Platteville.
Co-owners Vincent Selvey, Adam Guilette and Luis Rivera opened their doors in February.
Isabel Reyes, 20, a University of Wisconsin-Platteville junior, recently visited the shop. She occasionally smokes hemp flowers because they boost her mood.
â€śItâ€™s nice to have things that arenâ€™t psychedelic,â€ť she said.
Although the 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp and its derivatives from the federal schedule of controlled substances, it preserved the U.S. Food and Drug Administrationâ€™s authority to regulate products containing hemp-based CBD.
According to the agency, CBD is not permitted as an ingredient in food, drinks or dietary supplements. Moreover, the FDA says it must review and approve any hemp-based CBD product that is marketed as a dietary supplement or as having therapeutic benefits before that product can be sold.
The agency has approved one medication that contains cannabis-derived CBD â€” Epidiolex â€” for the treatment of rare forms of epilepsy.
Among the FDAâ€™s concerns are the safety of CBD products and accuracy of their labeling.
Scientists who study the compound echoed the agencyâ€™s concerns.
Dr. Yasmin Hurd, a neuroscientist and director of the Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai in New York is researching CBDâ€™s potential as a therapeutic intervention for people with addiction.
Her research suggests CBD reduces craving and anxiety â€” symptoms often associated with drug relapse.
Other researchers have examined the compoundâ€™s potential in treating neurological, psychiatric and inflammatory disorders, and some studies indicate the compound holds promise.
However, that people self-medicate with CBD in the absence of rigorous scientific evidence or add it to products like cosmetics and food without a medical purpose, concerns Hurd.
â€śItâ€™s for things that have nothing to do with treating any disorder. Itâ€™s gotten to this level of a fad,â€ť she said. â€śThat is why, for me, itâ€™s essential that we allow the science to speak and science to get back into the conversation.â€ť
Like other drugs, CBD also has potential side-effects, said Dr. Michael Ciliberto, a professor of pediatrics and neurology at the University of Iowa, who has studied the use of CBD for the treatment of epileptic disorders.
Those include appetite changes, diarrhea, liver enzyme abnormalities and sedation.
For a time, the compound became so popular that he estimated 90 percent of his patients inquired whether they should use CBD â€” even if their current anti-epileptic medications were effective.
â€śThere are some negatives to people thinking itâ€™s a magic bullet,â€ť Ciliberto said. â€śItâ€™s probably a little disconcerting to some people who go into it thinking itâ€™s going to be great and it works about like every other medicine.â€ť
Despite its warnings, the FDA has encountered a logistical roadblock to enforcement â€” the ubiquity of CBD products.
Although many states, including Illinois and Wisconsin, permit the sale of non-FDA-approved CBD products within their borders, such transactions violate federal regulations.
Because the Iowa Hemp Act does not preempt federal jurisdiction, hemp-derived CBD products that are not approved by the FDA or obtained through Iowaâ€™s medical CBD program are still considered illegal under state law.
That remains the case even if the CBD product contains less than 0.3% THC, according to the Iowa Department of Justice.
Additionally, until Iowaâ€™s hemp law takes full effect, the state still considers CBD a Schedule I substance.
Regulators face a complicated enforcement landscape as products manufactured outside of the state stream into Iowa.
â€śThere is no one who is guaranteeing that those products are what they say they are and that they are safe,â€ť said Randy Mayer, director of the Office of Medical Cannabidiol at the Iowa Department of Public Health. â€śConsumers should beware of those products.â€ť
State officials have left it up to local law enforcement agencies to enforce the state prohibition of the sale and possession of CBD products obtained outside of approved channels.
C.J. May III, Dubuque County district attorney, said people attempting to sell a CBD product in Iowa could face a felony charge, while those in possession of a CBD product obtained without a doctorâ€™s prescription or state-approved cannabis card could be charged with a serious misdemeanor.
May urged business owners who sell or plan to sell CBD products to reconsider.
â€śI think theyâ€™ve been giving fair warning and at this point moving forward â€¦ the law will be enforced,â€ť he said.
Dubuque Police Chief Mark Dalsing said enforcement â€świll include an education component.â€ť
Currently, the department is investigating locations in Dubuque that sell CBD products, but Dalsing said he is unaware whether police have confiscated products.
Following the Department of Justiceâ€™s announcement, Zimmerman said a Dubuque police officer visited Your CBD Store and told her she was selling illegal products.
Zimmerman maintains that she operates in compliance with federal law and has no intention of closing the business. She added that it would be to the city and stateâ€™s detriment if the shop was shuttered.
â€śThe State of Iowa will lose out on money being made and money being put into the economy,â€ť Zimmerman said.
The Iowa Hemp Act does not provide a regulatory framework for hemp processing and sales, noted Robin Pruisner, state entomologist with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
â€śThe state plan is only from seed to harvest,â€ť she said.
The FDA has initiated a review process to determine whether to regulate CBD as a pharmaceutical product or nutritional supplement, but has warned such review could take years to complete.
Iowa regulations will hinge on federal rulemaking, but at this early stage in the productâ€™s development, it is unclear what those will look like.
â€śI think for a viable market to develop in Iowa, we need all aspects of the processing â€” from alpha to omega. â€¦ But at the same time, state agencies are entrusted with making sure things are safe,â€ť Pruisner said. â€śThere is going to be awkwardness for a while in the world of hemp.â€ť