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Local farmer promotes hemp as alternative crop

Posted on April 29, 2000

By Deborah Gertz Husar, Quincy Herald-Whig

Quincy, Illinois — Revitalizing an Old World crop could mean new income for today’s farmers.

Industrial hemp, last produced in the United States in the 1950s, promises great potential for a variety of uses, ranging from textiles and paper to building materials, foods and automotive brake/clutch linings.

But hemp’s promoters have some hurdles to clear before the crop, effectively outlawed under the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, can be grown again in U.S. fields.

Ned Behrensmeyer, who owns a farm near Payson, wants to see hemp become another possibility for farmers beset by low commodity prices.

“From a farm standpoint, American agriculture is a table standing on two legs” — the two key grain crops of corn and soybeans, Behrensmeyer said.

“We’re at the point where there’s got to be some alternative crop.”

Industrial hemp, prized for its fiber, could be a profitable alternative. “There’s all kinds of ways (hemp) could be an income crop,” Behrensmeyer said.

Supporters, though, need to counter concerns about the link between industrial hemp and marijuana.

Hemp, by current definition, refers to varieties of cannabis sativa which produce 0.3 percent or less, per weighted unit of flowering tops and leaves, of delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinal (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Marijuana varieties typically contain 2 to 6 percent THC.

The two crops are grown differently — hemp tightly-spaced to promote growth of the stalk, the key part of the plant, and marijuana widely-spaced to promote leaf development. The two don’t co-exist well because cross-pollination reduces the amount of THC in marijuana.

Behrensmeyer wants federal and state regulators to make the distinction between the crops. “It’s made in many other areas. Why can’t it be made in this one?” he said.

Support is building for the idea.

Thirty countries worldwide grow hemp, including Canada. Canada licenses farmers to raise the crop, using only seeds of approved varieties with THC levels lower than 0.3 percent.

The Canadian crop targets primarily fiber, grain and seed. A U.S. crop would focus primarily on fiber uses. “The last thing I think we need is another edible oil,” said Jeffrey Gain, a North American Industrial Hemp Council Inc. board member from Hardin.

With other countries already growing the crop and competing in the marketplace, even dealing with U.S. businesses, “it shouldn’t be any big deal for us,” Gain said.

Farm groups like the Illinois Farm Bureau support investigating the idea, and groups like the North American Industrial Hemp Council Inc. have worked for years to promote the crop despite opposition from federal drug czar Barry McCaffrey.

Nationwide, 21 states introduced legislation last year to permit hemp production, and in December, the University of Hawaii, with permission from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, planted a test plot of hemp.

In Illinois, a measure called for creating a task force to study the issue of industrial hemp and make a report by Jan. 1, 2000. The task force saw potential for industrial hemp as an alternative crop. The task force made several recommendations, including:

  • Redefine cannabis sativa L. by differentiating between industrial hemp and marijuana — and stating that industrial hemp can contain a level not greater than 0.3 percent THC.
  • Request a permit from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to grow industrial hemp on research plots at Illinois universities.
  • Allocate funds for a complete market analysis of industrial hemp.
  • Offer information meetings throughout the state on hemp.
  • Support establishment of a U.S. and international certified seed bank for industrial hemp in Illinois.

The Illinois Senate then adopted a resolution supporting research at the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. A report from the research will be delivered to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2002.

Sen. Laura Kent Donahue supported the measure as a way to help farmers. “There are some concerns” with the THC level in hemp, but “that’s why we should study it. We certainly need to be trying to find alternative crops for farmers,” she said.

The Senate vote was “a good first step,” Behrensmeyer said, but the resolution still needs House approval.

Supporters pulled the resolution from consideration in the spring session, but hope to bring it up again this fall. In the meantime, they’ll continue the effort to educate legislators and the public about hemp.

Beyond income potential, the crop itself carries some environmental benefits. It needs no chemicals because the fast-growing stalks shade out weeds. “It grows 14 to 16 feet tall in 90 days,” Gain said.

At harvest, the stalks are cut at ground level, then the crop is “retted,” a 14- to 21-day process involving the decay of pectin, the substance that glues the fiber to the hemp stem core. The stalks then can be baled and stored or processed.

Processing could provide job opportunities in rural areas. “Since hemp is a bulky crop, it is not cost-effective to ship hemp far from a processing plant,” the task force report said. “In terms of community economic development, hemp cultivation could lead to jobs in processing centers, as well as in small weaving factories, seed crushing facilities and pulp mills.”

That possibility intrigues Omni Ventures Inc., a cooperative with members from Jersey, Greene, Calhoun, Madison, Bond and Macoupin counties that’s sponsored informational meetings on industrial hemp.

“It improves the bottom line and adds value. That’s what we’re about,” said Gary Knecht, Omni president. “The return per acre is quite substantial. You’re looking at a crop that produces 3.5 to 4 tons per acre. In Illinois, you could come close to 4 tons, and it pays almost $1,200 per ton.”

In years past, particularly during the World War II era when the government last lifted the ban on growing hemp, Illinois was home to a number of processing plants for the crop.

But the crop’s history reaches far beyond the modern age. “This was a big crop in the past,” Behrensmeyer said. “Obviously, when you look around at all the hemp grown worldwide, it didn’t get there by accident.

“The word canvas derives from cannabis which should tell you a lot. In centuries past, what was the primary use of canvas? Sails. Britain ruled the universe because of hemp. If you were in a British colony, it was illegal not to grow hemp,” he said.

“Until the 1880s, hemp was the primary paper-making material. The raw material for making paper was hemp until technology allowed for pulping of trees took over.”

Reviving that history, and making the crop available again to Illinois farmers, will take time — and dedicated effort from its proponents. “We’re going to get it done,” Gain said.

“This is a prairie fire,” Behrensmeyer said. “It’s not going to go away.”

Copyright © 2000, 1999, Quincy Newspapers, Inc. All rights reserved.