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Hemp hope

GAYS MILLS - For several years I’ve been casually interested in the development of hemp as an alternative agricultural crop. Recently, there has been heightened nation-wide interest in this versatile and promising crop. And, it seems to be catching on in Wisconsin.  Low prices of traditional crops, now exacerbated by recent tariffs, have farmers looking for ways to diversify and new things to grow.

Well, hemp is a ‘new’ old thing to grow. Hemp is an ancient plant and is believed to be the first plant domesticated by humans. There are examples of hemp fiber fabrics discovered that are 10,000 years old and hemp was no doubt used as food by early farmers as well. 

In 17th century America, farmers were required by law to grow fiber hemp. It was ‘legal tender;’ you could pay your taxes with it in colonial America. It was used as material for sails, rope, clothing, canvas, oakum for sealing ships and many other things.

Hemp is cannabis sativa and there are several strains of the plant. Cannabis sativa can be grown for at least three main reasons: A. for it’s use as a medicinal or recreational drug, commonly called marijuana; B. for it’s seeds and the oil from those seeds are used as a food supplements  (the oil, which is high in cannabidiol-CBD, is also used to help treat pain and seizures); and C, it is used as a fiber crop.

Due to competing producers of oil-based products at the time, growing hemp was outlawed in the U.S. in 1937. Largely because of the fact that one small slice of the menu of hemp products, that of marijuana and it’s use as a drug, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed and American hemp production ceased. We are outliers on this; many other countries produce hemp today and have done so, while we banned it.           

I bought a video about hemp production at the second Midwest Renewable Energy Fair back in 1991. (Held in central Wisconsin close to the Summer Solstice each year, the Energy Fair is a very unique and interesting event and organizers just celebrated  their 30th anniversary gathering last month.)  The title of the video was Hemp for Victory and was produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You can see this short, interesting video today on YouTube.

The surprising idea of the USDA promoting the production of a banned crop was due to events in World War II.  When the Japanese seized the Philippines after the attack on Pearl Harbor, we lost our provider of Manila Hemp. Hemp was crucial to the war effort, primarily as a source of rope and canvas. The government formed a private company, War Hemp Industries, to subsidize and facilitate the handling of hemp and it was grown on over a million acres, primarily in the Midwest. Wisconsin was a significant producer during that time. Remnants of the hemp-growing legacy remain today: wild hemp or ‘ditch weed’ is a common sight.

So it looks like hemp is re-emerging as a possibility for farmers and has many useful purposes for the population at large.  Growing a new crop is one thing, building the processing and distribution system to bring new products to market is quite another.  But people are working on that every day.

Stay tuned.