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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Milwaukee County Looks At Growing Hemp In Domes Greenhouse

Milwaukee County Supervisor Sylvia Ortiz-Velez says many Wisconsin farmers buy hemp clones from out-of-state sources; cultivating clones in-state will provide farmers a safer source and generate much needed revenue for Milwaukee County.

The Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservancy, fondly known as The Domes, is perhaps equal parts iconic and at risk. Like fellow Milwaukee County facilities, it is woefully in need of maintenance.

Supervisor Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, whose district includes The Domes, is proposing a new source of revenue: growing hemp in one of the dome's greenhouses.

On Tuesday, she took up the proposal before the Milwaukee County Parks, Energy and Environment Committee. But this wasn't Ortiz-Velez's first attempt to convince fellow county supervisors that cultivating hemp would be both a sound and lucrative move for the future of The Domes.

READ: Proposed Plan Restores Mitchell Park Domes & Its Surrounding Green Space 

A previous plan died in committee. But this time around, Ortiz-Velez came into the meeting chambers with several committee members already having signed on as cosponsors.

And Ortiz-Velez has done her homework, including traveling to Madison with Guy Smith, who heads Milwaukee County Parks. There they met with state officials, including the director of the Plant Industry Bureau, the head of the Hemp Research Pilot Program, the executive director of the Wisconsin Crops Improvement Association, and the associate dean director of agriculture at UW-Madison. 

"All of them expressed a real need to have viable hemp clones in our state," she explains.

Under Ortiz-Velez's proposal, a third party would lease one of The Domes' six state-of-the art greenhouses to cultivate baby industrial hemp. That's done "by taking a cut from a stem or a taproot of a mother hemp plant, which can then grow independently," she explains.

Ortiz-Velez says not only would farmers who want to grow high-quality hemp for products like CBD oil benefit, so would Milwaukee County.

She estimates that "$1.6 million to $1.7 million annually gross revenues can be obtained in one of the six greenhouses."

Throughout the discussion, cracks began to appear in communication between the county supervisor and county staff. While Ortiz-Velez believes there was room to spare within The Dome greenhouses, Director of Recreation and Business Services Jim Tarantino says that's not the case.

"Mr. chair and supervisors, apologies if I kind of, sort of breezed over it: all of the greenhouses are used for crop production for The Domes," Tarantino says.

And while Ortiz-Velez served on the task force that worked to come up with long-term Domes solutions with parks committee chair Jason Haas, sparks occasionally erupt between the two.

READ: The Future Of Mitchell Park Domes Remains Unclear

"Are we getting into the business of improving farming across the state? Is that the purpose of the county government?" Haas quizzed.

While Haas raises concerns, other committee members praise Ortiz-Velez for thinking outside the box, including Felesia Martin.

"What do we do as supervisors? Do we continue to do things the way we've always done, or do we reimagine Milwaukee County in seeing her as a leader in finding other ways of generating other revenue and not on the back of working and middle class folks," Martin says.

Fellow parks committee member County Supervisor Marcella Nicholson says Ortiz-Velez simply saw a problem and identified a solution.

"You've educated me as your colleague as well as those from other levels of government. You worked across governments. You went to the state," Nicholson says. "That's more I think than a lot of us do to solve the crisis that we have."

Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman muses whether baby hemp grown within a domes' greenhouse might hold a certain cache.

"[Could] there be like a 20% premium or 30% premium versus other clones? Would we be able to mark this up as really special?" Wasserman asks.

Only time will answer Wasserman's questions. First the county board will have its say, and if OK'd, people would have the opportunity to pitch their vision of growing baby hemp in the shadow of the Milwaukee County Domes.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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