What is hemp?

Hemp was one of the first domestically cultivated plants, with evidence of hemp fabric dating to 8,000 years ago. Currently, hemp is recognized as any Cannabis sativa plant that contains less than 0.3% THC by dry weight. Unlike marijuana which is also Cannabis sativa, the low concentration of the psychoactive THC cannabinoid means that using or smoking hemp cannot get you high. While marijuana is generally used as medicine to treat hundreds of ailments, hemp can be used to make thousands of products ranging from building materials, superfood products, rope, paper, clothing, cosmetics, oil, plastics, and even biofuel. This does not mean that hemp cannot also be used in medicine; other cannabinoids present in the hemp varieties such as CBD and CBN have been shown to also have medicinal effects.

Hemp General Facts

  • 1 acre of hemp can produce 3x as much fiber as cotton
  • All schoolbooks were made of hemp or flax until the 1880’s
  • Many of our country’s founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson farmed hemp
  • Hemp fiber is stronger than cotton and is resistant to mildew
  • Henry Ford’s Model-T was constructed primarily from hemp and ran on hemp biofuel
  • One acre of hemp will produce as much paper as four acres of trees
  • Hemp has been shown to remove contaminants such as heavy metals from soils
  • At one point in history, hemp could be used to pay taxes
  • Marijuana plants cannot be grown and hidden amongst hemp plants. Marijuana grows short and gets shaded out by tall hemp plants. Also, fertilization from male hemp plants reduces marijuana quality.
  • Oil from hemp seeds can be used to make non-toxic diesel fuel
  • Hemp can be harvested to make paper in under four months, while trees take several decades to grow

Hemp History – From Booming Industry to Prohibition to Reincorporation

    Hemp has been cultivated and used by humans for thousands of years. Ancient Chinese cultures 4,500 years ago used hemp fibers in textile production and also seeds as dietary sources of high quality proteins and fats. In the 600’s, Europeans were using hemp to make rope and clothing.

During the 17th century, hemp was one of the primary sources of building material for ships. This included the physical body of the boats and also the sails. Hemp cultivation in North America began as European settlers arrived. Interestingly, the Declaration of Independence was even drafted on hemp paper! The founding members of our country (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams) all grew hemp on their farms and were major advocates of hemp. However, as time went on, new crops such as cotton, wood pulp, and synthetic fiber production increased and slowly began to compete with the hemp market.

In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed. This legislation lumped industrial hemp with drug varieties of marijuana – a coupling that is still not distinguished today. This law required farmers to register their hemp farms with the federal government. Ironically, the government issued little to no licenses for farmers to grow hemp, eliminating its cultivation from American soils all together.

During World War II, the demand for hemp in the war efforts grew so high that the United States Department of Agriculture started a “Hemp for Victory” program that produced over 150,000 acres of hemp in the United States. However, after the war ended, lobbying efforts by the petrochemical, synthetic fiber, and wood timber industry ended all hemp cultivation and progress.

In the 1970’s, industrial hemp was classified as a schedule 1 narcotic (still recognized as marijuana) under the Controlled Substance Act.

In 2014, President Barack Obama opened the doors for American hemp cultivation and research under section 7606 of the 2014 Farm Bill. This work allows cultivation of industrial hemp such that it is being grown under a state-run research pilot program.

Currently, the United States imports the majority of its hemp products from other countries such as Canada, China, and Ukraine. In states that do not have legislation permitting a research pilot program, it is illegal to cultivate and process raw hemp materials, but not illegal to import or trade processed hemp.

32 states have passed hemp legislation since the doors were open under the 2014 Farm Bill. In 2016, 9,650 acres of hemp were grown across California, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. At the federal level, congress has passed a series of bills that prohibit the DEA from spending tax dollars on preventing or combating hemp research and cultivation efforts. Organizations such as VoteHemp are very active in writing and passing legislation to open the doors for hemp cultivation and bring down red tape that is in the way of the emerging industry.


Hemp Farming

Hemp is adapted to both conventional and organic farming practices. Over past generations, dozens of hemp cultivar varieties have been developed in different parts of the world, each expressing different phenotypes and requiring slightly different growing conditions. Generally, hemp prefers sandy/loamy textures and grows best in well draining soils, but will also grow in poor soils. Seeds are usually planted in early to late May depending on latitudinal location and are harvested in early to mid August. Depending on the variety, full growth cycles can range from 70 days to 5 months. Although seeds require moisture for germination as most plants do, hemp is a unique crop in that it requires very low amounts of water throughout its growing cycle – another plus for farmers!

Cannabis plants are monecious, meaning that the male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. Female plants flower and make seeds during the late summer months, while male plants produce pollen-sacs in flowers and then die back. Male flowers present a highly attractive food source for bees.

Varieties used for fiber, seed, and seed oil are generally planted densely (approximately 35-50 plants/square foot). According to Canada’s Industrial Hemp Production Basics, densely planted hemp plots that are able to germinate and grow for 2 weeks will shade the ground and exclude weeds from competition, eliminating the need for herbicide application. For more information from this source, read this.

Production and yield of fresh hemp material depends on a combination of factors including climatic and soil conditions, cultivar variety, and intended use. In Canada, hemp farmers averaged approximately 700 lbs/acre for grain, 5,300 lbs/acre for straw, and 1,300 lbs/acre for fiber. Kentucky’s 2016 crop averaged 1,500-2,000 lbs/acre for grain and sold for $0.70/lb. Generally, hemp cultivation generates 2.5 times the value of corn and soy.

According to the Agricultural Marketing and Resource Center, the total market value of hemp products sold in the U.S. in 2013 was $581 million.

The introduction of hemp in a crop rotation provides a variety of benefits for the farmer and his land. For example, in addition to incorporating a new component of crop diversity, hemp has been scientifically shown to remove and dilute soil contaminants in its plant tissues – a process known as phytoremediation. In this action, the hemp plant is able to extract pollutants such as heavy metals, salts, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), chlorinated solvents, and excess nutrients and store them in a diluted form in their biomass. Many of these contaminants come from decades of synthetic chemical use used in conventional farming techniques. The incorporation of hemp into planting rotations presents an opportunity for farmers to restore the soil that they depend on for food and prosperity for generations to come.