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High risks, high rewards: Interest in industrial hemp surges as Wisconsin enters second year of legal production

This kind of cannabis won’t give you a high, but the buzz around growing industrial hemp was palpable at the 2019 MOSES organic farming conference in La Crosse this week.

“There’s so much money to be made,” said Shelbi Jentz, 28, of Beaver Dam, Wis.

Jentz was one of about 100 attendees eager to learn more about growing hemp during Thursday’s all-day workshop. The interest was so great that conference organizers had to move the session to a bigger room.

Before the conference, Jentz said she filled out the 2019 application for a hemp growers license and has a one-acre plot picked out. But she’s held off on submitting the application because she’s skeptical of the “happiness” online around growing hemp right now, she said. “They say you can make $50,000 per acre and that’s crazy.”

Thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill and the ascendancy of cannabidiol, a hemp extract known as CBD, as a bona fide wellness trend, industrial hemp is poised to become a major cash crop for the upper Midwest. And the numbers show people want in on the action.

Since Wisconsin started allowing farmers to grow hemp a year ago, applications have more than quadrupled, said Melody Walker, plant, pest, and disease manager for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The department had received 1,310 license applications as of Tuesday, said Walker, who presented at the conference. There’s still about a week before the March 1 deadline for the 2019 growing season.

By comparison, the department issued 245 hemp growing licenses last year, Walker said. Only 135 of those growers actually grew hemp on a scant 1,850 acres total.

Jennifer Lu / Jennifer Lu, La Crosse Tribune  

Melody Walker, plant, pest, and disease manager at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Products, said more growers have expressed interest in growing hemp in Wisconsin this year. 

Wisconsin used to be a hemp hub, from the 1920s through World War II, but the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 rendered hemp illegal to grow or possess. Ironically, feral hemp remains a common weed throughout Wisconsin ditches.

The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp — and its seeds, derivatives and extracts — with the stipulation that plants must contain THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, at levels below 0.3 percent. Hemp that tests positive for THC levels above this threshold must be destroyed by law.

Unlike marijuana cannabis, hemp cannabis has been optimized to contain high levels of CBD and low levels of THC, though concentrations of both compounds increase as the plants mature.

CBD extracted from hemp flowers is also the main source of excitement around hemp, which can be grown for fiber and grain as well.

A mature hemp plant produces about one pound of dried flowers, which can sell for $20 to $50 per pound, said conference speaker Bryan Parr, agronomist with Legacy Hemp in Prescott, Wis. Since growers plant between 1,000 and 2,000 plants an acre, that translates to up to $100,000 per acre before seed, labor and processing costs are factored in.

“Everyone’s looking at CBD,” said Joe Klingelhutz, farm and realty specialist at the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust.

CBD proponents, including Klingelhutz, swear by the oil for treating medical problems including anxiety, pain, sleeplessness and seizures. Doctors say the medical evidence for CBD isn’t there, except as treatment for two types of childhood epilepsy.

“CBD is the new wave,” said Klingelhutz, who said that he frequently gets calls from farmers looking for growing information.

But the high rewards don’t come without equally high risks.

“Because people are aware of feral hemp and wild hemp, there’s a myth that you can just throw it in some soil and it will grow,” said Walker, who added that she sometimes tries to dissuade first-time growers from starting with hemp. “It’s not like any other agricultural crop. There’s so many agricultural rules and costs to it.”Hemp seeds range between $1 and $5 per seed and have a high seedling mortality rate, Parr said. “One quarter of the seeds that you buy will not grow up to be a full plant.”

Starting out with seedlings is a more certain but expensive option, Parr said.

Growing hemp for CBD is also a labor-intensive activity that requires hand planting, weeding and harvesting, Parr said.

Hemp plants can be male or female, but only female plants matter for CBD production. Fields must be kept free of male plants that can pollinate female flowers and cause CBD levels to plummet dramatically.

Because Wisconsin is rife with feral hemp growing by the wayside, growers must be hypervigilant about weeding out male plants, Parr said. Complicating matters and adding to growers’ workloads, female plants can also turn hermaphrodite when stressed, meaning they become both male and female in a final bid to self-pollinate and survive.

And there’s the tug of war between optimizing plants for CBD content and keeping them from “going hot.” That’s when THC levels skyrocket and the whole crop has to be destroyed, Parr said.

Drought, insects, and other environmental stressors can cause THC to peak, Parr said, so “it’s so important to test this stuff on a regular basis” and harvest prior to the inevitable THC spike. THC tests cost between $75 to $100 per plant, Parr added.

Finally, Parr stressed the importance of making sure growers have a buyer lined up before they plant.

“We’re getting to a point where we’re outpacing the demand,” he said. “If you don’t have a contract, you may be sitting on $15,000 to $20,000 of crop you can’t sell.”

Parr said he could count the number of license Wisconsin processors able to extract CBD on one hand.

Jeff Kostuik, of Hemp Genetics International in Saskatchewan, Canada, echoed this sentiment, adding that states like California and Colorado have the upper hand because they entered the CBD market earlier.

Unfazed by the challenges, Renee, 58, and Scott Vandenberg, 55, of County Line Farm in De Pere, Wis., said they were eager to get some plants in the ground before the CBD bubble bursts.

“Everyone’s enticed by the prices,” Renee said. “You wonder if the prices are going to stay high.”

Although they had never heard of CBD until November, Renee said they were approached by a business partner about it. They asked their friends and pastor whether it was ethical to grow hemp for CBD before they made up their minds, Renee said.

The feedback they got was overwhelmingly positive, she said. “Everyone who talks about it champions the health benefits.”

The couple has 75 years of farming experience between them, and listening to the panelists lay out the intricacies of growing hemp made them more determined to grow it, Renee said. After the conference ends Saturday, the Vandenbergs said, they will continue on to the Hemp Expo in Rochester, Minnesota on Monday.

Tony Bowers, 66, of Brightenridge Shire Farm in Sparta, who was volunteering at conference, said his main takeaway was that hemp was too labor intensive for him.

Jentz, who came to the conference with her growers license application filled out, said that hearing the panelists lay everything plainly gave her a better idea of what to expect her first year. She said she plans to submit her application after the conference.

Because Wisconsin is rife with feral hemp growing by the wayside, growers must be hypervigilant about weeding out male plants. Complicating matters, female plants can also turn hermaphrodite when stressed, meaning they become both male and female in a final bid to self-pollinate and survive.

“There’s so much money to be mad. ... They say you can make $50,000 per acre and that’s crazy.” Shelbi Jentz, 28, of Beaver Dam, Wis.

La Crosse woman's 'revelation' propels her paintings of Jesus in snowy scenes
Jason Goldstein photo 

Clara Maria Goldstein of La Crosse looks at her painting of Mary and Jesus in trinity of works with the overall title of "Rabbi Jesus in Israel’s Snow.” Most depictions of Jesus feature desert-like surroundings in which “You imagine sweaty people and hot,” Goldstein said. “However, it does snow in Israel and, therefore, Jesus must have experienced it. I was very excited about this revelation."

There’s no Jesus like Snow Jesus like no Jesus you know — until now, in Clara Maria Goldstein’s latest additions to her “Rabbi Jesus” series of paintings.

The La Crosse woman, who created a trinity of paintings of Jesus in snowy settings for this roll-out, found her inspiration not only from the white that has all but buried the Coulee Region this season but also her discovery that snow falls in Israel.

“It’s been a new revelation for me,” Goldstein said during an interview in the sunbathed family room where she paints and where expansive windows look out on snowdrifts in the backyard. “A friend who lives in Jerusalem sent me a video of a snowstorm at the Kotel (Western Wall), as it was covered in snow.

“That is when I first learned that it snowed in Jerusalem, and that is also when I first associated the idea of Jesus in the snow,” said Goldstein, who was raised Roman Catholic in Nicaragua but converted to her husband’s Judaism when she married Jason Goldstein.

“I personally see so much snow in the Wisconsin winter, but I had never associated it with Jesus because I have never read any story mentioning Jesus in the snow,” she said.

“The only story I have heard that mentions a snowy day in Israel is from the Hebrew Bible where Benaiah killed a lion on a snowy day. I don’t think there are any stories of Jesus depicted in the snow in the gospels or in any painting, movie or documentary,” she said.

Snowy Nativity scenes seem like more of a modern construct based as much on the fact that Christmas is celebrated in December as anything else. Most images of Jesus in the Bible and in art through the ages depict him as a sandal-wearing traveler on dusty roads and desert-like surroundings.

“You imagine sweaty people and hot,” Goldstein said. “However, it does snow in Israel and, therefore, Jesus must have experienced it. I was very excited about this revelation.”

Goldstein has painted more than 50 works of Rabbi Jesus in a variety of settings — some serious, some playful, and many showing the connections between Judaism and Christianity. Her book, published in 2009 and titled “The Missing Paintings of Jesus as a Jew,” features many of those works.

This time, she created the trio of paintings with the overarching theme of “Rabbi Jesus in Israel’s Snow.”

Titled individually, the paintings are:

Madonna and Child under Israel’s Falling Snow

  • . As the infant kisses Mary on the cheek, his arms gently enfold her neck and his hands delicately hold her head, Mary has a stunning smile and loving expression. Adorned in white, she has a Star of David on her shoulder, while the red-clad infant wears a kippah — a brimless cap also called a yarmulke.

Jesus Shoveling Nazareth’s Snow during White Hanukkah. (One can almost imagine a 12-year-old Jesus muttering, “Well, I’ll shovel for a while, bu

  • t when Mom’s not looking, I’m gonna head over to the Temple and teach the elders a thing or two.”) It also features Jewish symbols of a mezuzah on the door jam and a menorah in the window.

Jesus Making an Israeli Snowman

  • . (One is tempted to wonder whether Jesus might have been saying to the friend who is helping craft the snowman, “Well, this isn’t how Dad created humans — he used clay, and he snagged one of Adam’s ribs for Eve.”) The snowman wears a yarmulke with a Star of David on top and sports a blue scarf with Stars of David, which also adorn the boys’ snowsuits. Which of the boys is Jesus is the viewers’ choice, depending on how they imagine the scene, she said.

Goldstein created the paintings purposefully — with a modern look instead of the milieu of ancient Israel, she said, adding, “I used modern clothes because they are relatable, and children can relate to him shoveling snow or building a snowman. He probably played in the snow, like many kids do here.

“The colors are bright to reflect happiness,” she said. “I like the idea of showing Jesus happy. Most important was to show love and him helping,” Goldstein said.

“The Jewish symbolism is to remind the viewers that Jesus and Mary were of the Jewish faith,” she said. Goldstein, who has a law degree and practiced law for a time in La Crosse, has a Catholic daughter, Alejandra, from her first marriage, and Jewish sons Isaac and Julian from her marriage to Jason, a La Crosse attorney.

Goldstein explained that Jesus is the only subject she paints because of the inspiration she derives from doing so. She eschews accepting commissions for paintings, saying she wouldn’t find the same motivation.

“These paintings are similar to the classical depiction of Jesus in the way that they also rely on artistic license,” Goldstein said. “No one really knows what Jesus looked like. There are no photographs. The truth is that, if we were to meet Jesus in person, here or in the afterlife, we wouldn’t recognize his face.”

The paintings also feature a touch of Israel, she said, explaining, “I first mixed water from Israel into the gesso (a white paint mixture), and then sand from the land of Israel into the actual oil paintings themselves. Doing so made the paintings physically connected to the land of Israel where Jesus was born, lived and died as a Jew.”

Goldstein has painted more than 50 works of Rabbi Jesus in a variety of settings — some serious, some playful, and many showing the connections between Judaism and Christianity.

“When I first learned that it snowed in Jerusalem ... is also when I first associated the idea of Jesus in the snow.” Clara Maria Goldstein, artist

Winona mom who fed toddler laxatives says she was suffering from postpartum depression

ST. PAUL — A postpartum-induced delusion that doctors were failing her ailing toddler compelled a Winona mother to try to make him sicker so medical staff would pay closer attention to his case, she told a judge Thursday.


That’s why Megan Lee Kafer periodically disconnected his feeding tube while he was hospitalized for about three weeks last July for “failure to thrive,” she said.

And why she let him drink water from her water bottle without controlling how much he consumed.

And why, on July 26, 2018, she took him into a hospital bathroom and tried to feed him a laxative she mixed with water through a syringe she kept hidden under a blanket as she held him.

That’s where she was when police arrested her. She was charged months later with felony-level child endangerment that could cause harm or death.

Kafer’s son, who is now 3, suffered a seizure due to her actions and underwent numerous procedures and surgeries, court documents say.

With her husband sitting behind her in the gallery, the 25-year-old pleaded guilty Thursday, telling Ramsey County District Judge George Stephenson that she can see now that her actions were wrong.

“They made sense at the time, but they don’t now,” she said, tearfully.

‘I wanted them to fix him’

But last July, sleep-deprived, away from her support system, and struggling with postpartum depression, Kafer said she found herself in the midst of a delusion that convinced her medical staff at Children’s weren’t doing all they could to help her son.

Making him sicker, she thought at the time, would make him better off later because doctors would feel compelled to dig deeper for answers, she said.

“I wanted them to keep looking for a way to fix him,” she told Stephenson.

“(But you agree) that ultimately what you were doing … was to try and make him sicker,” Stephenson asked her.

“Yes,” she responded.

Kafer cried and wiped away tears during her testimony. Her quiet responses grew even quieter when Ramsey County Assistant Attorney Dawn Bakst made her acknowledge the series of troubling Internet searches police found on her phone after her arrest.

They included:

“MiraLax overdose,” “Can a doctor tell if you overdose on MiraLax,” “How to make a baby really sick,” “Mom gets 20 years to life for poisoning son with salt,” “Salt child death,” and “How to make a baby vomit.”

A medical report on the boy noted that his “poor weight gain” during his hospitalization likely was due to his mother “denying him nutrition through a combination of disconnecting/diverting his feeds and administering water,” according to the complaint.

It went on to say that “there was every reason to believe” the infant’s prolonged weight issues were caused by “inflicted starvation,” and that doctors believed Kafer both “falsified” and “induced” symptoms of illness in her son and used doctors “as a weapon to inflict harm on him.”

Kafer and her husband have two children. Both were removed from her custody and currently are under the care of her husband.

A child protection case is ongoing in Winona County.

Kafer is expected to receive a stayed prison sentence when she returns to court for sentencing in May. The judge will decide then whether she also should spend time in jail and if her no contact order regarding her son is to remain in place.

Children living with father

Kafer has a history of struggles with her mental health, according to a social services report filed with the court.

She attributes her challenges to a car accident in 2012 when she struck and killed another motorist, legal documents say.

A social worker wrote in a report filed with the court last month that Kafer also endured “several instances” of trauma prior to the accident that could have had “significant impact on her emotional and mental health,” the report said.

After being temporarily removed, the Kafers’ children are back home with their father, who the social worker described as a “strong, supportive and healthy attachment partner” for his kids.

It went on to say that a doctor who evaluated the children said both seem to be “very well adjusted” despite the disruption to their lives.

Their mother is allowed supervised visits with her daughter, but not her son.

Kafer was diagnosed in January with several mental health disorders, including post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and major depression.

The doctor who diagnosed her said she should have no contact with her son until she is involved in “intensive psychological treatment” coordinated with psychiatric treatment, according to the report.

Kafer is scheduled to be sentenced in her criminal case May 7.

Megan Lee Kafer periodically disconnected the toddler’s feeding tube while he was hospitalized for about three weeks last July for “failure to thrive.”