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Can hemp become the cash crop tobacco once was in Vernon County? That's what Luke Zigovits posed as a possibility to a crowd of about 150 people attending his presentation "Opportunities with HempScience" at the Jan. 9 Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club meeting at the Food Enterprise Center in Viroqua.

Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant species that is grown specifically for the industrial uses of its derived products. It is one of the fastest growing plants and was one of the first plants to be spun into usable fiber 10,000 years ago. It can be refined into a variety of commercial items including paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, and now phytonutrient products.

Although cannabis marijuana and industrial hemp both derive from the same species, Cannabis sativa, hemp contains 0.3% or less of the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). New hemp cultivars have been specifically bred to have lower concentrations of THC and higher concentrations of cannabidiol (CBD), which eliminates any risk of psychoactive effects.

Wisconsin was historically a major producer of industrial hemp for fiber until 1958. According to Zigovits, it still can be found growing feral in the county, for it escaped cultivation via wildlife and its desire to reproduce via male and female plants. A 2017 law has re-opened Wisconsin for hemp farming, allowing farmers to once again grow industrial hemp. In addition, the 2018 Farm Bill federally rescheduled hemp, which allows Wisconsin hemp to now cross state lines and is now considered an agricultural crop. Zigovits maintains that currently the most valuable returns for farmers in Vernon County is growing seedless female plants whose flowers will be used for the extraction of CBD. “Grain hemp poses a big threat to our farmers' well-being and their bottom line," he said. "Because of the risk of pollination of their crops, we discourage planning grain and fiber hemp in our community. Male plants are needed for grain production and will cause the involuntary formation of seeds in CBD hemp, which will significantly reduce farmer pay price and the percentage of extractable CBD for HempScience."

Zigovits, who lives in rural Viola with his family, has extensive experience in the organic farming and the hemp industry. He has worked with both organic food and organic animal feeds at Farmer Direct Co-op (FDC, a Canadian food company) and Organic Valley (our area organic dairy brand). While at Organic Valley, he created a crop grower pool to supply member dairy farms in times of high feed costs. He took sales from less than $1 million per year to $27 million per year within a five-year period. At FDC, he switched gears from high volume, low margin feed sales to high value organic and fair-trade human grade food grains. At the same time, he built a network of dedicated and talented organic family farmers to feed a national retail brand.

The local entrepreneur has been working with his business partner Jason Freeman and farmers in Canada to grow certified organic hemp seed since around 2002. Both men are experienced in organic hemp grain production, sourcing and trading. Their Canadian-based companies sell bulk hemp oil, hulled hempseed, and protein meal through their own brand as well as to other food manufactures.

Now the CEO of North American Organic Trade Solutions (NAOTS), Zigovits co-founded HempScience LLC, a fully-owned Wisconsin-based subsidiary of NAOTS. HempScience is one of 22 entrepreneurial businesses currently leasing space at the Food Enterprise Center. Licensed for hemp processing, HempScience wants to develop a local hemp grower pool for a nationally distributed brand producing in Viroqua the world's first certified organic, fair trade, small producer and premium hemp phytonutrient products such as drops, capsules and topicals, which Zigovits said, "People want these products because they know they work."

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HempScience has an established network to provide profitability through significant retail, wholesale, and medical clinic sales. The company plans to set up its processing and manufacturing facilities in Viroqua this year. To accomplish its processing and manufacturing goals, HempScience needs a pool of reliable growers to produce the supply of quality certified organic hemp flowers. Building an ethical supply chain is an important goal of their company's mission, and all products will be 100 percent organic.

"We are offering full or partial production contracts for 2019," Zigovits said. There will be other opportunities for spot market contracts as well. Production on a quarter-acre to two-acre growing space is recommended, and a structure to dry the hemp flowers is needed, just like with tobacco. A state-issued license to grow the hemp is also required, and the deadline to apply for one is March 1.

Zigovits estimates HempScience initially needs 30-50 acres, or around 100,000 pounds, of CBD hemp flower production for this year, although much more may be needed for spot market contracts. "HempScience is looking to qualify quality growers for 2019 and beyond," he said.

The Viroqua-based company follows a small organic family farmer focused business model and offers direct contracts with local and regional farmers who in turn will have access to the many resources HempScience can provide. This includes agronomic support, access to quality transplants and a knowledgeable staff to discuss production and harvest. In addition, Zigovits and his team continue to do research and development on their certified organic farm in Vernon County. “Its important to find varieties that work for our region and much like tobacco, we may find that there needs to be a different cultivar for ridge top and valley farms”, said Zigovits.

In the HempScience model, creating a grower supplier pool will enable a stable market for farmers while establishing a consistent supply of raw material needed for the HempScience brand. Zigovits has worked alongside many world-renowned cannabis breeders and researchers and brings his extensive network and hands-on experience in organic agriculture to the organization. As the CEO and the Co-Founder of HempScience, he will oversee plant genetics, cultivation, manufacturing and processing of the certified organic hemp flower into a finished retail branded product.

HempScience offers interested individuals future opportunities as growers, employees or investors. Zigovits says farmers can expect to make a profit, and full-time jobs will be created in harvesting and production among other related activities. Dedicated growers' meetings will be held once a grower pool of dedicated farmers is established in the near future.

For more information on becoming a grower of quality certified organic hemp flowers, contact Luke Zigovits at info@organichempscience.com.

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Kathy Neidert is a member of the Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA) Board of Directors.

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