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Miracle crop, or bust?

Posted on April 1, 1999

Why Should Canada And Europe Supply U.S. Companies With Hemp When We Could Grow It Here?

Proponents of industrial hemp can get carried away, and it isn’t hard to get caught up in their enthusiasm. Here’s why.

Hemp may be grown without expensive crop production inputs, including herbicides. Typically, large tap roots bore deeply into the ground to provide excellent soil aeration, and when the crop is rotted in the field, a nice layer of organic matter is added to the soil. Some agronomists are even suggesting that soybeans grown in a rotation following industrial hemp show a significant reduction in soybean cyst nematode.

Because of its hardiness, hemp may be grown from Texas to northern Canada, in most types of soils, with little effort.

Although growing hemp is illegal in this country, processing raw hemp into products is not. The number of products from hemp imported into the United States is staggering, so much so that some are calling hemp the “soybean of the new millennium.” Environmentalists love it because the fibers are considered better for the manufacture of paper than wood fibers; they call it “treeless” paper. Hemp may be used in plastics (that biodegrade), textiles (carpets, jeans, shoes, rope, ship sails), paper and building materials, animal bedding, foods, technical products (paint, solvents, printing ink) and oil (shampoo, bath gels).

“We show that some 25,000 different products can be made from industrial hemp,” states Bud Sholtz, agricultural economist and chair of the North American Industrial Hemp Council (NAIHC) in Madison, Wisconsin. “We might have lost count. The list continues to grow.”

And, finally, many farmers already have the necessary equipment to plant and harvest industrial hemp. Fiber producers may use typical haying equipment, and seed producers can turn to a combine. There is little need to regear to produce the crop.

A viable crop

Is industrial hemp the “miracle crop” our nation’s farmers have been searching for? “The only miracle I know of in farming is when it rains after a six-week drought,” quips Andy Graves, president of the Fayette County Farm Bureau and the Kentucky Hemp Growers Co-op Association. “Is industrial hemp a viable and environmentally friendly alternative crop? That’s what we’re banking on.”

That “we,” however, does not include the federal government’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

Last year in his report “Hemp & Marijuana, Myths and Realities,” Dr. David West, a commercial plant breeder in Prescott, WI, wrote: “Feral hemp, or ditchweed, is a remnant of the hemp once grown on more than 400,000 acres by U.S. farmers. It contains extremely low levels of THC [tetrahydrocannabinol], as low as .03 percent. It has no drug value… About 90 percent of the “marijuana” being eradicated by the federal government — at great public expense — is this harmless ditchweed. Might it be that the drug enforcement agencies want to convince us that ditchweed is marijuana in order to protect their large eradication budgets?”

Changing minds

Andy Graves is trying to change the minds of such groups as the DEA and the American Farm Bureau Federation. “I’m the first farmer in my family’s seven generations of farming U.S. soil who cannot and has not grown industrial hemp,” he states.

Graves believes that economics and a growing demand will change that situation. “Actually, the Farm Bureau is taking a neutral stance on the issue. And that’s just the way we want it,” Graves says. “While the rest of the bureaucracy is trying to figure this out, we’re going full speed ahead in developing a market for hemp. We’re now worrying about economics and development,” he adds.

Graves, who is also an NAIHC board member, notes that “the U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that outlaws the growth of industrial hemp.”

The NAIHC is working with several states to research growing and developing market opportunities for industrial hemp. Kentucky, Hawaii, Illinois, Virginia, Wisconsin, Ver-mont, Colorado and North Dakota are among the many states where legislators, university researchers and farm organizations are trying to enact positive legislation.

The Minnesota Senate recently passed a bill that would allow industrial hemp to be grown on experimental or demonstration plots. Farmers would register with the state ag commission to grow it, as well as provide plot location. If the bill is approved by the Minnesota House and Gov-ernor Jesse Ventura, Minnesota will become the first state to allow the crop to be grown for industrial uses.

A million-dollar industry

Six North Dakota State University professors collaborated on a study that showed that, since 1995 when industrial hemp could first be imported into this country, imports have increased 215%. Worldwide hemp sales were $5 million in 1993 and jumped to $75 million in 1995. Hemptech, a California company that tracks the industry, estimates sales will top $600 million by 2001. “You want economic growth?” Graves asks. “In Kentucky alone we have already developed a fish meal substitute using industrial hemp called Nutra Hemp. It’s a major savings on fish meal, which quite frankly we’re in danger of eradicating from our oceans. We’re feeding Nutra Hemp to hogs and cattle right now at a significant savings, and we are finding we are producing livestock that is hormone-free, steroid-free and antibiotic-free. This is essentially organic beef. And right near us here in Kentucky we have a paper recycling company that has figured that it can use industrial hemp in its processing right now and have an appetite for 25,000 acres.”

And this doesn’t include the seed market, which Graves believes will compose the heart of Kentucky’s economic gain. “Look, we’re in an area where the tobacco industry is going to change. Every farmer knows the situation with corn and soybeans,” Graves says. “Industrial hemp that is field retted [rotted] is so bulky after it’s baled that it almost has to be processed locally. This lends itself to rural economic development by creating jobs. That is good for everyone.”

Industrial hemp offers the world of commerce a variety of raw materials — long-bast fiber, medium fiber, short-core fiber, seed, seed oil and seed meal. Approximately 30% of the plant’s tall, thin stalk is made up of long-bast fiber that competes so favorably with wood and cotton.

The real dope

Proponents of the legalization of industrial hemp have two main preambles: Industrial hemp is the crop for the times, and their product is not to be confused with marijuana in any way, shape or form.

Though both marijuana and industrial hemp have been categorized as Cannabis, especially by the DEA, there is a significant difference both in plant physiology and propagation.

Marijuana is high in THC, the mood-altering chemical. Marijuana contains from 3 to 25% THC. Industrial hemp, on the other hand, is an “industrial-sized” headache for smokers. Not only does it have less than one-half of a percent of THC, it contains a significantly high percentage of something called cannabinoid (CBD). CBD actually blocks a marijuana high, according to West.

Growers of marijuana want buds and leaves. That’s where the THC is at its highest levels. Growers of industrial hemp want stems. They aim for tall, spindly plants that stand 6 to 8 ft. high. It’s the stems that contain the valuable fibers.

“Basically, marijuana is an “inside” crop. Get it around industrial hemp,” Graves says, “and it cross pollinates, and the CBD eventually overpowers the THC. That’s the last thing a marijuana grower wants to have happen.”

“We’re not proposing the legalization of marijuana at all,” snaps Sholtz. “The NAIHC is totally against that. Don’t get us mixed up with that.”

Actually, it was a B-grade movie that is credited with the demise of industrial hemp — that and an overreaction of a drug enforcement agency. With the end of Prohibition, a movie called Reefer Madness was released that ballyhooed the evils of marijuana. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 placed an extremely high tax on marijuana and made it effectively impossible to grow industrial hemp. Although a prewar push, Hemp for Victory, was made to help produce clothing and other materials for the war effort, by the 1950s the U.S. hemp industry was virtually dead.

What’s next?

Graves and others seem content with the development of the wholesale market for industrial hemp, although they would definitely prefer that the crop be grown here. “Canada started production last year, and we’re importing that. More and more industries, and more and more people, are discovering the benefits of this fiber. We’re just getting started. The infrastructure is beginning to emerge,” Graves says.

Sholtz would prefer, if and when hemp is legalized, that growth of the infrastructure and the propagation be slow. “Somehow it must be controlled. With an open market, industrial hemp won’t exist within five years. If the price is $75 per ton, if we let this go the way of corn or soybeans, the price will drop to $25 a ton and never recover. We do not want to destroy our own market before it has a chance to be developed.”

The Canadian government regulates the growing of hemp, requiring growers to give their GPS field coordinates and undergo a background check. Could that work here?

Interestingly, industrial hemp has quite a strong historical significance for this nation. Sails on the ships that brought theoriginal immigrants to this nation were made of hemp. In Jamestown and other colonies of the 1600s, “must grow” laws were passed to keep the struggling villages clothed and protected. Two of the first versions of the Declaration of Independence were printed on hemp paper, and Betsy Ross sewed the first U.S. flag with hemp. Settlers crossing the country used wagons covered with hemp tarps.

Graves asks, “And, we can’t grow it here?”

Copyright © 1999, FIN. All rights reserved.

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