Washington, D.C. — Despite hemp’s cachet as an up and coming textile, it probably never would be a financial bonanza for U.S. growers, a government study said Friday, pouring cold water on some farm income hopes.
Industrial hemp, a cousin to mood-altering—and illegal—marijuana, has gained attention as an alternative to cotton for textiles and apparel as well as a possible cash crop for small farms.
The first test plots for industrial hemp were planted last month in Hawaii. Canada and Australia legalized hemp growing in 1998. Nine U.S. states, including Hawaii, passed legislation last year regarding research, study or production of the crop.
Agriculture Department economists concluded the market for industrial hemp “is and will likely remain a small, thin market.”
“Just a few farms” could grow all the industrial hemp needed for domestic mills at present, they calculated.
If hemp took away all of the linen market, it would require a comparatively small 250,000 acres to grow it. That equals 40 percent of land now devoted to tobacco and 0.4 percent of land sown to wheat.
Hemp enjoyed a surge of interest in tobacco states recently as farmers looked for substitutes for tobacco, a crop with far higher returns than cotton, corn or soybeans. Most growers have small farms so they need crops with large income per acre (hectare).
The small volume of linen used each year “suggests that hemp, flax’s close cousin in fiber uses and in production techniques, will be unable to sustain adequate profit margins for a large production sector to develop,” the report said.
More than 1.5 million pounds of hemp fiber were imported last year. About 523,000 pounds of hemp fabric were imported in 1998 and hemp yarn imports peaked at 625,000 pounds in 1997. It would take about 2,000 acres to grow that amount of hemp domestically, the economists said.
Canadian farms grew about 35,000 acres of industrial hemp last year.
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