Industrial hemp has been grown in the U.S. since the first European settlers arrived in early 1600s. In 1619, it was illegal NOT to grow hemp in Jamestown, Virginia. Massachusetts and Connecticut had similar laws. In the 1700’s, subsidies and bounties were granted in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and other New England states in order to encourage hemp cultivation and manufacturing of cordage and canvas (the word “canvas” is rooted in “cannabis”). George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams all grew hemp and actively advocated for commercial hemp production. Benjamin Franklin owned a mill that made hemp paper, and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. Some historians say that the first American Flag in 1776 was made from hemp because no other fiber was strong enough to withstand the salty air on naval ships. For over 200 years in colonial America, hemp was currency that one could use to pay their taxes! Hemp was a staple crop of American agriculture, reflected in town names like “Hempfield” and “Hempstead.”
Viewing hemp as a threat, a smear campaign against hemp was started by competing industries. At the same time as these campaigns, cotton’s popularity increased, so did the improvisations of the inventions and machinery relating to cotton. The hemp’s machinery lagged and stunted the growth of America’s hemp industry. The smear campaigns must have worked, because during the 1930’s hemp was lumped under the umbrella of “marihuana” in the Marihuana Tax Act (how they spelled it then). The law was aimed at regulating the narcotic varieties of cannabis, but due to being lumped together, the hemp industry was effectively regulated out of existence.
However, during World War II, the government needed hemp for the war. So, the USDA’s Hemp for Victory campaign was used to convince farmers to embrace hemp again. Hemp was needed for fiber for the war effort so much so that the USDA even produced brochures and an educational video for further encouragement to the growers.
Henry Ford 1941
Hemp is part of the cannabis family that includes all varieties that contain negligible amounts of THC, the chemical in “marijuana” which is psychoactive and gets you “high.”
The 2018 Farm Bill officially defines hemp as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”
The Cannabis family contains numerous varieties, yet it is most famously known for psychoactive cannabis (marijuana or “weed”). This is the main reason why people confuse the term hemp with marijuana. Hemp actually refers to the industrial variant which is cultivated for its fiber, hurd, and seeds, as well as the other natural healing compounds found in its leaves.
The seed is mainly used in dietary products. Hemp seeds are typically hulled and use in variety of ways. Seeds can be eaten raw, ground into a meal, made into milk, and are even used to make protein powder.
Canada is the biggest producer of hemp seeds with over 84,000 acres licensed for cultivation in 2015. Most of the hemp strains grown in Canada are called Finola. Finola is known for producing the most amount of seeds, but they are very short so can’t be used for their stalk. Over time, more farmers are experimenting with dual use varities which can be used for both seeds and stalks.
When you slice a hemp stalk in half, you’ll see, nestled in a snug hollow tube, a long, string-like band running the length inside. This is hemp’s famous bast fiber. When harvested correctly, the fiber is actually stronger than steel. The stalk and its fiber are used mainly in clothing, construction materials, paper, and more.
Historically, so many different applications have been found for hemp’s stalk. In a 1938 Popular Mechanics article, hemp was stated to be the next ‘billion dollar crop’, as it praised its bafflingly strong fibers. The magazine found there to be more than 25,000 industrial uses for hemp. Applications of hemp stalk include apparel, bags, rope, netting, canvas, and carpet.
China is the world’s biggest producer of hemp stalks, with the government claiming the hemp industry to be over $200M.
Often referred to as the woody core, hemp hurd is the soft inner core of the hemp plant stem. It is highly absorbent and rich in cellulose and great thermal and acoustic properties. The hurd can be used in two different forms:
Out of its many applications, hemp concrete (hempcrete) has been gaining a lot of attention globally as a natural substitute to concrete. More houses in Europe and Canada are starting to be built in hempcrete due to its strong insulation, windproof, and low carbon footprint properties.
In addition to hempcrete, hemp hurds are used for animal bedding, biodegradable garden mulch, paper, plastics, and insulation.
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