Here Comes Hemp

Date: 9 May 1995 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Here Comes Hemp

by David Morris

May 9, 1995

Nine months ago I described the remarkable rebirth of hemp. Once the world’s most important textile crop, hemp was banned in the late 1930s because smoking its flowers got you high. My column reported that 60 years later the prospects for industrial hemp are once again bright and American farmers and industry would do well to take another look at this versatile plant.

That column generated a spirited reaction. The Drug Enforcement Agency(DEA), in a response printed in this paper, belittled hemp. The agent who wrote the article informed what I’m sure was a very surprised paper and textile industry that there was no worldwide fiber shortage. And he labelled me a marijuana booster in hemp clothing. A high official in Minnesota’s Farm Bureau called to say that although he respected my work in agriculture he wanted to make it perfectly clear that his organization would never support a crop that could be used as a drug.

Notwithstanding the naysayers, I’m happy to report that nine months later the support for hemp continues to blossom. Indeed, later historians will note that the hemp revival occurred not because of some top-down government sponsored program but because of, pardon the expression, grassroots activism and a growing army of profit seeking entrepreneurs.

I reported last year that Canada was about to harvest its first legal industrial hemp crop in 60 years. The publicity attendant to that 10 acre plot in Ontario prompted AgCanada, the country’s department of agriculture, to publish a four page bulletin on hemp. Printed on 100 percent hemp paper, the bulletin quickly became a best seller. “We were not expecting the response,” says Gordon Reichert of AgCanada. “There is a groundswell growing very, very quickly in Canada”.

This year at least five Canadian provinces will be growing hemp for research purposes.

Last November, the first trade association, the Hemp Industries Association was formed in response to the rapid increase in sales and the need for consistent quality standards.

This January the Governor of Kentucky convened a high powered task force to explore the prospects of re-introducing industrial hemp into that state. The Kentucky Farm Bureau passed a resolution in support of hemp. In late March the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture convened a meeting of textile manufacturers, bankers, farmers, legislators, environmentalists, hemp growers and importers. Out of that meeting was born the North American Industrial Hemp Forum.

Hemp sales are soaring. Hemp is now imported by six major importers/wholesalers and made into clothing by about 30 different manufacturers. Hemp apparel and accessories are offered by about 700 U.S. retailers.

We’re closing in on the time when you can dress from head to foot, from cap to shoes, in hemp. The domestic market for hemp was about $25 million in l994 up from less than $1 million in 1990. In Germany sales of hemp products have gone from virtually zero in 1992 to about $15 million in 1994. At the current rate of growth the U.S. hemp market alone could reach $200 million by 1998.

Farmers in Britain, Spain, France, Netherlands, Switzerland and especially in Hungary, Poland and Romania are quickly expanding hemp acreage. American companies are investing in hemp paper mills in the Netherlands and hemp textile mills in Hungary. Contrary to DEA’s assertion, textile and paper companies are very much concerned about a global fiber shortage.

As for the drug connection, the breed of cannabis sativa planted for industrial hemp contains very little THC, the substance that gets one high. As farmer Gale Glenn of Kentucky’s task force says, “There’s seed corn and feed corn and popcorn”. And there’s cannabis and cannabis. European hemp is legal only if its THC content is a fraction of l percent, some 30 times lower than in cannabis grown for marijuana. As Scott Smith, University of Kentucky agronomist says about the prospect of getting high from smoking fiber hemp, “It’s like smoking cornsilks”.

Hemp has attracted the interest of farmers and rural developers in part because farm support programs are being cut back. Farmers are searching for profitable crops that require less government support. Hemp may fit the bill. Hemp generates a higher net income per acre than corn. It can be grown from northern Canada to central America. Every part of the plant has an industrial or food use. Some compare its potential to that of soybeans, the last important commodity crop introduced into the United States back in the 1920s.

We’re still at the beginning of this new era of industrial hemp. Crop yields are still modest. Seed prices are high. Textile and paper mills are learning how to modify their machinery to most effectively use this new fiber. Chemical companies are still analyzing the unusual properties of hemp oil.

The learning curve will continue. The only question is whether American farmers and American industry will be part of it. Americans are buying hemp products in increasing quantities. But our farmers can’t grow the crop. And our industries must invest in foreign mills to make the final product. That is no way to run an economy. Is it?

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.