Economic Development & the Natural Environment – Coming Together in Monroe County

Monroe County, WI

These days the buzz in Monroe County, WI, is all about industrial hemp and its products: CBD oil and graphene. Meanwhile at the BIO-SUNN Technologies Inc. in Garrison, ND, the buzz is all about the welcome mat that Monroe County is rolling out for them.

When we spoke to Steve Peterson, Monroe County’s Economic Development Coordinator, on May 1, we expected to hear about the county’s many advantages – that it is mid-way between the Twin Cities and Chicago and mid-way between Rochester, MN and Green Bay WI, with excellent transportation links via Amtrak and Interstates 90 and 94, and that it contains two small cities, Tomah and Sparta, with populations between nine and ten thousand.

But Peterson was most excited to discuss ongoing initiatives to attract businesses to the mainly rural county. Specifically, he couldn’t wait to share breaking news concerning Bio-Sunn Technologies Inc., which will soon construct a wholly new 50,000 square foot industrial hemp CBD (cannabidiol) oil processing plant in the small community of Kendall. A former elementary school will become a new research and development facility, attracting scientists, botanists and agronomists from all over the country.

Game changer
When that’s complete, Bio-Sunn will build a second plant to process fiber from the rest of the operation. Plus, plans are in the works to build a subdivision, starting with a 60-unit apartment building which will eventually house up to 250 employees in Kendall, present population 450. The initial project is valued at $55 million and when the entire build out is completed, it will be valued at over $215 million.

Peterson calls it “a real game-changer for Monroe County, for the farmers, for the tax base, for everyone. It’s phenomenal and I want to use every adjective I can. I still can’t get my head around it.”

Just the day before, on April 30, he told us, the financing investment package had been secured, setting in motion the mega-project that had been worked on for three years with Bio-Sunn. While the official announcement was scheduled for mid-May, we at Business in Focus were thrilled to hear it first. And not only because we ‘scooped’ all business media, but because we know how long and hard Economic Development directors work to attract business, only to see minds change at the last minute.

Hemp epicenter
Such was not the case with Bio-Sunn Technologies Inc, founded in 1986 by Lewis Bauer, headquartered in Garrison, ND, and the force behind the North Dakota Hemp Growers Association. With great vision, it saw the potential to create an epicenter of industrial hemp production in the village of Kendall.

“Wisconsin was the number one hemp producer in the 30s and 40s when hemp was legal,” Peterson explained, “and it was to do with the quality of the industrial hemp. The quality was so high that the military specifically designated Wisconsin hemp for the shoes for all soldiers in the military. Then it was made illegal because of its association with marijuana, but three years ago, when the Federal Farm Bill was signed into law, industrial hemp was included. Every state is responsible for creating their own rules and regulations of how it can be grown and processed, and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture is working on that,” he shared.

Being first
“It’s like when the oil fields started in the Dakotas. It was the Wild West all over again, with everyone flying through the doors to be the first to get their oil fields set up. We will see the same thing here. State officials told me they’ve already got applications for over 3000 growing licenses and 300 processing licenses and, even before the Bio-Sunn project launches, more than 450 acres have been licensed for CBD industrial hemp planting in 2019, so what we’re encouraged about is that when we make the official announcement in a week or two, we want to be the first CBD oil processor and not number two or three. When you’re the first, it puts you ahead of the game.”

What particularly attracted Bio-Sunn to Monroe County were the small farms in a 60-mile radius of Kendall, many farmed by the Amish community and organic farmers. “The key to good CBD oil production is that it has to be grown on organic-type soil and Amish and organic farmers don’t use chemicals so that is a big asset. There is also quite a bit of set-aside acres in the area that have not grown any crops for years. It means that we have a very rich area where we can produce high quality CBD oil. It’s being used in topical lotions and creams and it’s become the end-all of health treatments. It’s used for chronic pain from arthritis and fibromyalgia and to treat anxiety and depression.” But, he says, unlike THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, CBD is not intoxicating.

To explain the difference between marijuana and hemp, Peterson compares the cannabis family to citrus fruit. Oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit are all citrus, he says, but they’re not the same and neither are cannabis plants. “There is the industrial hemp plant that is grown for fiber that can grow to be 16 feet high; there’s the CBD oil plant that grows to four feet, and there’s the marijuana plant that produces THC.”

Stronger than steel
“Now,” he says, “scientists in Canada have discovered they can take the rest of the CBD oil plant and produce a high-end fiber called graphene that is 100 times stronger than steel and easier to work with. It’s lightweight and electric cars are going to be unbelievably efficient when this comes around. The evolution of graphene electric batteries is projected to be so efficient that you can charge a battery in the time you’d pump a tank of gas in the future. Graphene batteries could also be an electric source for your homes. Right now, it’s being used for interiors and door moldings in Mercedes. You’d think it was leather, but it’s really industrial hemp,” he explains.

“And of course, you can do clothing and rope, and use it in concrete blocks that are lightweight and have a higher R value than standard blocks. Plus, it’s 100 percent biodegradable. I was told there are 150,000 uses for industrial hemp that are already patented.”

Peterson says the goal for this first year is to contract 120 acres, which could include up to 50 to 60 farmers depending on the number of acres per farmer. “Growing hemp is labor-intensive and you want multiple farmers growing it because you don’t want one farmer’s crop to fail and have it be a large percentage of your total crop production for the year. The crop will be dried and processed in the fall. By year five Bio-Sunn hopes to have up to 1000 or 1200 acres under cultivation.”

Irons in the fire
While the Bio-Sunn project is hugely significant, it’s not the only iron Peterson has in the fire. Every year in February he runs an Economic Development Conference, which began as a half-day event, but has since expanded to two full days. This year saw over 300 attendees from 27 Wisconsin counties, including Secretaries from various State Agencies along with 45 speakers. “We spotlighted three companies who had an opportunity to talk about what they do, including Multi-Stack [located in Sparta], one of the top air-conditioning and heating companies for industrial buildings – and also for every U.S. embassy in the world!” A delegation from Kazakhstan also attended one day of the Conference as part of their trip to Wisconsin.

In addition, in Cashton, where Peterson grew up on a dairy farm, there’s Organic Valley, an organic food processing, packaging and distribution company. “The company was courted all over the United States, but they chose Cashton,” he says. In 2017, Organic Valley chose to build a 23,000 square foot Business Center onto their existing facility. The company’s annual sales went over $1.1 billion in 2018.

In Sparta, the County Seat, a 188-acre business park opened last October. “It’s right off Interstate 90 and is a State-certified Business Park. Many projects are already in progress and there are more to come,” he says.

Meanwhile in Tomah, “we have the $66-million hospital that will be done at the end of August and next to it a $40 million clinic and cancer research center is being built. It’s all part of a wellness campus on 40 acres purchased by the Tomah hospital foundation, so we’ll be doing all sorts of things there.

“Then on the land across the road is a business park that’s being marketed. In downtown Tomah, a new multi-use complex just opened up and takes up a whole city block. It’s got 30 apartment units, professional offices, retail space, a restaurant/bar and banquet hall, and that’s made a huge change to the downtown.”

Considering the environment
However, there is always the balance between economic development and the natural environment to be considered, something which is respected in Monroe County and which is one of the reasons why businesses which complement the environment are showing such interest.

“We have great outdoor activities,” Peterson says. “People can get into fishing, hiking, biking, horseback riding, golf and other recreational activities. We have tremendous healthcare facilities and our schools are very progressive, including technical training. We also have the Inspire program where we network with high school students and hook them up with businesses as mentors and we have apprenticeship programs.

“Plus, the farmer’s markets have really taken off and are open two to three days a week. People want natural foods and Millennials shop differently from their parents. They want everything fresh and they don’t mind going to the market every few days.”

Proud destinations
“We’re proving that economic development is not all going to the big centers,” Peterson says. “Small cities and villages and rural areas need to step up and be proud that they can be a destination. Bio-Sunn came partly because the area was so conducive to what they wanted to do. They could have gone to the State of Washington, to Montana, they could have gone to Canada – the company’s head engineer is Canadian – but they chose us. They are going to be building other plants later on in other locations around the country, but this is their first.”

In conclusion, Peterson says that Lewis Bauer, founder and CEO of Bio-Sunn, “did look at other places, but now says he wouldn’t put the CBD oil production plant anywhere else. Kendall is perfect.”

May 31, 2020, 3:32 PM EDT