While forests diminish worldwide prices and demand for fiber are skyrocketing. A plant cultivated by our founding fathers may be the solution to our growing fiber shortage. Imagine a crop more versatile than the soybean, the cotton plant, and the Douglas fir put together … one that grows like Jack’s beanstalk with minimal tending. There is such a crop: industrial hemp. Hemp was once indispensable to world commerce. The 1913 Yearbook of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture called hemp “the oldest cultivated fiber plant,” mentioned how the crop improves the land, and said that it yields “one of the most durable fibers of commerce.”
Then, in 1937, fiber hemp fell victim to the anti-drug sentiment of the times when the U.S. Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act. The in. tent of the law was to prohibit the use of marijuana, but it created so much red tape that the production of industrial hemp became nearly impossible. The fact is, hemp grown for fiber has never contained psychoactive qualities. A plant cultivated for marijuana has a 3 to 15% THC content or more, while industrial hemp generally contains 1% or less.
Farming of Hemp
Industrial hemp gives farmers a crop that produces a high-quality fiber with few synthetic chemicals, if any. Since hemp plants grow 6 to 16 ft tall in 70 to 110 days, farmers of large and small acreages alike can shade out weeds and thus eliminate the use of costly herbicides. Hemp yields 3 to 8 tons of dry stalk per acre, depending on climate and variety. Once harvested, the field is left virtually weed-free for the next crop.
With the tobacco industry in decline, there is a strong interest among tobacco farmers in the cultivation of hemp. The governor of Kentucky has formed an official task force to evaluate industrial hemp as a supplemental crop to tobacco. Currently, hemp cannot yet be legally grown.
That has not stopped the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association from moving ahead with their plans, however. The Lexington, Kentucky based farmers group, comprised of 125 farmers, is currently in negotiations with a southeastern recycled containerboard manufacturer to use hemp as a fiber supplement.
Hemp makes possible the production and use of tree-free paper, from which there are several environmental advantages to be gained. Hemp has a yield-per-acre several times higher than that of trees. Its longer fibers create high-quality paper for books, magazines, and stationery, while the shorter fibers make excellent tissue paper and packaging materials.
Compared to wood, fewer chemicals are required to convert low-lignin, tree-free fibers to pulp. And using fewer chemicals reduces wastewater contamination. Because most plant fibers are naturally a whiter color than wood, they require less bleaching, and, in some cases, none. Less bleaching results in less dioxin and fewer chemical byproducts being generated by the papermaking process.
Hemp paper resists decomposition, and is not subject to the age-related yellowing of wood-derived papers. Because of the strength of hemp fiber, paper made of hemp can be recycled up to several times more than paper made of wood.
The increasing demand for paper is motivating the paper industry to explore nonwood fiber sources. Two German mills have begun to produce hemp paper, and Kimberly-Clark Corp. operates a mill in France to produce hemp paper for Bibles and cigarettes. Breaking new ground, an East Coast paper company has begun production of a hemp content paper marketed under the label ‘Tradition Bond.’ The 24-lb-weight paper contains a minimum of 10% hemp pulp, 20% postconsumer, and 60% agriculture residues.
The products known as composites, including paneling, medium-density fiberboard, trusses, and support beams, comprise the fastest-growing segment of the wood-products industry. Washington State University’s preeminent Wood Composite Laboratory has tested hemp for use in medium-density fiberboard, and lab results show that hemp is up to twice as strong as wood. According to the lab director Tom Maloney, “The use of hemp fiber in multidensity fiberboard and other composites looks very promising.”
The Next Step
The U.S. government has not granted any permits for large-scale hemp farming in over 40 years. Canada, Australia, and Germany are already working to develop their respective hemp industries, and all have government-approved research plots and increasing public support to lift the hemp ban. In coming years, free market traders will continue to jump over the U.S. ‘Hemp Wall’ to deliver imported hemp products. Purchasers of hemp products are voting with their dollars, and the race is on to market ecological goods to this expanding group of buyers. American manufacturers cannot afford to be left behind.
John W. Roulac is president and founder of Hemptech. This article was excerpted from Industrial Hemp: Practical Products — Paper to Fabric to Cosmetics.
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