Many hemp farms follow a model and outline every move as they make a plan prior to growing. Ashley and Dan Shafer, owners of DNA Hemp in Washington County, WI, took a different route.
Growing a crop on any scale requires land, and the Shafers were fortunate that Dan’s uncle Dave owns 88 acres in the Kettle Moraine region of Wisconsin, some of which he leases to local farmers for cash crops.
“Then we came along and the hemp pilot program was initiated in Wisconsin,” said Ashley. “Uncle Dave and my husband Dan got together and got excited about the prospect of growing hemp. Uncle Dave was supportive, so we leased a portion of land and started growing.”
The Shafers grew hemp on 10 acres the first year. Ashley said their experience was “the wild, wild Midwest.”
“Dan put over 10,000 hemp seeds in the ground that year,” she said. “We learned so much, from weed remediation to irrigation, harvest, hang-drying, to shucking and bucking. We were in over our heads.”
The Shafers’ 2019 harvest was bountiful, but they didn’t have plans for the harvested crop. Ashley quickly found that getting a significant contract from a buyer is nearly impossible, and there was no mill to take the hemp.
But over summer, as the crop grew, Ashley had done a lot of networking. She attended events and trade shows and made a lot of phone calls. After finding a processor who was willing to work with her, she and Dan continued to grow hemp for CBD. Five seasons later, the Shafers have developed 75 hemp-based products available in retail locations and online.
Ashley said choosing which hemp variety to grow is part of the fun. “The 0.3% compliancy is huge,” she said, “so we work with geneticists who have a proven track record of making sure the plant stays compliant.”
She added that when the hemp program began, any crop testing over 0.3% meant destroying the crop, but now, the crop can be remediated by the processor.
“The processor can isolate and extract the THC so it’s still considered hemp and isn’t hot,” said Ashley. “With the seed we’ve used, we haven’t had to remediate, but I’m happy for that option. There are more than 113 different cannabinoids in hemp, not just THC, and that’s where the real magic lies – the synergy within the plant with the full spectrum of cannabinoids. It would be a shame to waste the other cannabinoids just because it was a little over the THC limit.”
When choosing what to plant for 2023, the Shafers sourced seed locally. “This year we grew the strain ‘Early Remedy,’” said Ashley – a strain originated in Wisconsin. “In the past we’ve used genetics from Oregon and Colorado that were fun and funky, but we wanted to bring it home.”
At one point the Shafers grew six strains in a season, and that material is preserved for processing. “A lot of people are going for Delta-8, Delta-9 and THCA,” said Ashley. “They want the desirable effects from those cannabinoids. We chose a strain that has a high cannabinoid content that tested 19% so when it’s processed, it has high content for the products.”
In early spring, the Shafers start seeds in cell trays in their hoop house. One-month-old seedlings that are well-started are transplanted to the field. Plastic weed barriers and drip lines are set up for a fertigation system that supplies water and feeds plant with organic nutrients. Some plants are reserved to raise in pots in the greenhouse. Numerous controls are necessary in greenhouse production to manage aphids and other pests.
Because hemp is a bioaccumulator and picks up substances from the soil, Ashley said it’s important to start with clean soil. While all the hemp for DNA Hemp products is grown with organic practices, Ashley makes an effort to ensure hemp grown for use in personal products is as unadulterated as possible.
After plants are tested for allowable THC level, the Shafers have 30 days to harvest. First, they clip the colas – the flowering sites (buds) on the female cannabis plants. “Then we harvest the rest of the plant to be chopped and used for biomass,” said Ashley. “The stalks are chopped and returned to the fields.”
Since many who purchase CBD hemp are first-time users, Ashley tries to simplify the selection process for customers. “I try to strip it down to the basics about what cannabis can offer people,” she said, “which is the different modes of consumption.”
DNA Hemp offers a wide selection of products including body balm, lip balm, soap, olive oil, herbal seasoning, honey, smokables, flowers and a variety of full and broad-spectrum oils.
The Shafers have found that growing hemp involves a lot of hand work as well as keeping up with required paperwork for licensing, testing and processing. However, the growing conditions in Wisconsin, including good soil and adequate sun, contribute to a productive season.
“The biggest obstacle is to find out how we can maximize the opportunity and use hemp for grain and fiber,” said Ashley. “The infrastructure isn’t there – we need to switch mindsets and make strides.”
DNA Hemp has hosted agritourism events where the community is invited to visit the farm. “We have since bought 40 acres of our own,” said Ashley. “We’ve done goat yoga on the farm, foraging, honey extraction and build-your-own flower bouquet or smudge stick. We try to involve the community and connect and get creative with opportunities that we can monetize so we can keep going.”
Ashley strongly believes people should be their own health advocates and return to the basics of whole-body health. “The science makes sense,” she said, discussing the benefits of CBD. “Listen to your body and what it’s telling you and go from there.”
She added that there’s still a lot of work to do in promoting healthy living, but hemp is a great starting point.
“I really connect with sun-grown hemp,” said Ashley. “That’s how nature intended this plant to grow. It’s a weed, grown for thousands of years, and can grow in just about any soil or climate. It wants to thrive.”
Visit DNA Hemp online at dnahempllc.com.
by Sally Colby