Northwestern Illinois’ Stephenson County is one area where changes in the status of cannabis are being embraced. The people doing it are not necessarily the ones you’d expect.
Head a couple of miles west of Lena, halfway between Rockford and Galena in the rolling hills of far northwest Illinois, then along an up-and-down road with patches of freshly laid gravel, and you’ll end up at Ron Fluegel’s farm.
Fluegel is the third generation to farm here. He raises beef cattle, and grows corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. Now he’d like to add another crop—hemp—which contains virtually none of the psychoactive component found in medical or recreational marijuana, for producing cannabidiol, or CBD, oil. Fluegel thinks there's a market for the substance used in homeopathic treatments for pain and other conditions. It’s not the first time he’s undertaken a new venture.
“I like to look at whatever that new opportunity, new experiences," he said. "You know, back in '96, I jumped on the ethanol bandwagon and was part of a plant to be built in Lena, Illinois. And then in 2005 then I was a part of a group that put together a biodiesel production plant that ended up being built down Danville, Illinois.”
The reason is simple: It’s hard to make a steady living as a farmer on a few hundred acres. He and his son have outside jobs to supplement farm income.
Hemp might help, but it has its own headaches. Fluegel says seed is expensive. He had to buy specialized machinery to plant and harvest the plant from Australia and Finland for around $300,000. That's on top of regular farm equipment. There aren’t any CBD oil processors in Illinois, so he lined up one in Kentucky to make sure he has a salable product.
He says banks won’t lend money for anything related to cannabis, even hemp, and other lenders he's used won't because they don't have a model to predict a return from this new crop. So he's had to turn to private investors. Still, he thinks there’s the potential to make money—and maybe help some folks, too.
For Fluegel this is just about business, not any desire to advance marijuana. He was on the Stephenson County Board when In Grown Farms proposed a growing facility for the then-new medical marijuana program in Illinois.
“I'll be honest," he said, "at first I was not in support of it. I guess what swung me was when I learned that it could it could eliminate up to 98% of seizures for children with epilepsy. And I thought if that was available to me, as a parent, I would go anywhere that I could in this country to do that for my children.”
The man who helped change Fluegel’s mind is himself an unlikely advocate. Stephenson County Board Chairman Bill Hadley is a lifelong resident with deep roots in the area. He’s a self-professed conservative Republican.
“My dad was a big Eisenhower man, Nixon man and so on," he said. "Got my start in politics back in 1976, working for Jim Thompson's campaign and worked on Jim Edgar’s campaign and George Ryan, some fine Republican governors we had over the years.”
As county board chairman, Hadley’s had to listen to—and work with—all sides to get things done. But he had to do the research and be convinced himself that there was a real benefit in medical marijuana. Then it became just good economics to push for a growing facility in Stephenson County.
“And when they did announce one of the applicants, In Grown Farms, was picked," he said, "we were delighted because that was our first person in our industrial park. And they did put up a small building and an 80,000-square-foot building.”
But the larger building is just a shell, with a gravel floor. The promised boom in medical marijuana failed to materialize, at least in part because of the tight restrictions on it by the Illinois Department of Public Health under former Gov. Bruce Rauner. The company says it will expand if that changes, or if recreational marijuana became a reality in Illinois. Hadley’s against that.
“I don't believe we need to go down that avenue," he said. "I know some are legislators are interested because of tax revenue. But I think we need to expand the medical part of it.”
Illinois is actually doing that with the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program, and a move to make more conditions eligible for the medical marijuana program.
Still, he admits that the facility’s expansion for any reason, including recreational use, would be a plus for the county.
“That would mean good-paying jobs and more revenue to the county," he said. "In reference to the property taxes out at In Grown Farms right now, approximately, they're paying about $30,000 in property taxes.”
That would more than double with expansion. And Hadley hopes any additional revenue generated for the state by recreational marijuana will be shared with counties like his. He’d love to be able to lower property taxes. But at least, he says, there must be more money for county and local law enforcement. He says they’ll need more resources and training to handle problems caused by overuse. That’s been seen in other states that have legalized recreational use.
Back on the farm, Ron Fluegel’s focused on making his hemp operation a reality. He knows it may take a while, but he’s thinking long-term.
“I’ve got a grandson," he said, "so if he'd like to do that I'd sure like to be able to have the opportunity there for him to farm if he desires.”
In the meantime, Fluegel, Hadley, and others like them will keep trying to figure out the changing state of cannabis in Illinois, and how to handle it. As Fluegel put it: "new day, new challenge."