Hemp Farming: a distant past or a possible future?

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Hemp has been grown as an agricultural product for centuries around the world and has a wide variety of uses. It can be used in textiles and paper, as an efficient and renewable biofuel, in generating plastic and building construction materials, in cosmetics and soaps, and as a source of protein and essential nutrients. Over 33% of hempseed is a high-quality protein that contains a balanced portion of most essential amino acids.

Hemp in the American Experience: the sails made for the ships that brought early colonists to the US were made of hemp, the Declaration of Independence was written on paper made from hemp, and three of our country’s founding fathers grew hemp (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin). In fact in the 1600 and 1700’s it was illegal to not grow hemp if you were an agricultural producer and for almost 200 years Americans could pay taxes with hemp.

So, what happened?

Hemp is part of the Cannabis plant family. In the 1930’s, during ‘Reefer Madness’, it was classified along with marijuana as a dangerous drug (a Schedule 1 drug). Hemp looks a lot like marijuana plants grown for recreational and medicinal use, but it only contains a small amount of the psychoactive chemical (Tetrahydrocannabinol) that gets people ‘high’. Some argue that there were strong lobbying forces from the forest, oil, and cotton industries to ban hemp in order to expand their empires, since hemp can be used for all of these purposes. 

Hemp Revisited

The debate on revitalizing industrial hemp operations in the US has been heating up.

Currently, 32 states in the United States have introduced and 20 have actually passed pro-hemp legislation. In the 2013 legislative season alone 21 states introduced industrial hemp legislation. The legislation includes bills that define industrial hemp as a distinct crop from marijuana and remove barriers to production, bills that create state hemp commissions, bills that authorize research and study of hemp, and state resolutions. Read more specific state legislation here (Vote Hemp).

Under federal law hemp is still illegal and it is prohibited from being grown in the United States. While, two bipartisan hemp bills have been introduced into Congress this year (H.R. 525; S. 359 [included as Amendment 952 in the Farm Bill]), nothing has passed.

One farmer in particular has brought a lot of attention to hemp legislation by growing one of the country’s first commercial hemp crops in 56 years despite federal and state laws. Colorado farmer Ryan Lofin grew and harvested 55 acres of hemp this year, making a strong political statement.

Can Hemp Help the Environment and Economy?

The push for industrial hemp is coming from a variety of places. Some argue that could be a factor in revitalizing rural economies and bettering our environment. Is hemp a win-win for the economy and environment? (Forbes). Others are more skeptical of its benefits and raise concern that it will lead to enforcement issues or be a factor in deregulating marijuana. 

According to the Hemp Industries Association, in 2012 the US hemp industry was valued at about $500 million in annual retail sales and growing for hemp products. There is a current market for hemp within the country and abroad, especially because of its ability to be used in a wide range of products.  

Hemp has also been touted as an environmentally friendly crop. According to a 2005 Stockholm Environmental Institute Report that compared cotton, hemp, and polyester, cotton needs 50% more water per growing season than hemp. Factor in the water requirements for processing and cotton uses four times more water to produce a final product. Also, cotton requires twice as much land per ton of finished textile than hemp.

Hemp grows very densely, which prevents weeds from growing within the crop, and is generally resistant to pests. This means that the amount of pesticides that need to be applied to hemp compared to other crops such as cotton, which uses 25% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of the world’s pesticides, is much less. Hemp grows like a weed so it does not require much, if any, fertilizer and can be grow in a wide variety of climates (from Hawaii to Montana) and on almost any type of soil. 

When comparing wood and hemp fiber, both are renewable resources that can be used for paper products. However, while it takes about 25 years for a forest to mature and be harvested, hemp can grow 8-12 feet in about 3-4 months. In 1916, USDA Bulletin 404, by Lyster Dewey and Jason Merrill, claimed that one acre of hemp can produce four times as much paper as an acre of trees. However, this aged static has been criticized as not taking into consideration current processing technologies, paper quality, and the fact that forests require little maintenance, but an agricultural crop of hemp is harvested multiple times a year and creates a much bigger environmental impact.

Current research on hemp has been conducted by eco-technologist Dr. Keith Bolton. His studies have found that hemp can be used as a ‘mop crop’ because it has the capacity to absorb impurities from the soil and air, as well as filter water. More research can be done on the environmental and economic benefits of hemp, such as on how it can be used for carbon sequestration, but it is clear that hemp is not a crop to be dismissed lightly.