Hemp is a genetically diverse species which has been, and continues to be, grown for a tremendous variety of uses. Botanically it is classified as a dioecious species which means that there are distinct male and female plants. Only about 6% of the world's plants exhibit this characteristic, which also includes Palmer Amaranth.
In colonial times the fiber of both hemp and flax was used to produce everything from clothing, to rope, to paper. The Declaration of Independence was printed on hemp paper. The sales of ships like the USS Constitution and the covers for the Conestoga wagons were all made from hemp fiber. Historical records from Lancaster County, PA show that over 100 hemp mills operated to separate the fibers from the bark and the core. Hemp production in the US began a slow decline in the mid 1800's as the cotton gin and wood pulp products proved cheaper and easier to work with. It only became illegal to grow hemp during prohibition when it was equated with marijuana. The hallucinogenic properties of marijuana are often ascribed to all hemp types and hemp products. This is in no way true. THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, is about 100 times lower in concentration in industrial hemp and cannot be used as a narcotic.
The United States is the only country which bans hemp production today. However, there is a renewed interest in the crop and for the many uses for its products. Not only is the fiber sought after, but the seeds are about 25% protein and reported to have many essential fatty acids. Past and present uses for hemp fiber and oil include:
- High quality paper
- Building materials
- Animal Bedding
Oil and Hemp Meal Uses
- Food products
- Essential Oils
- Animal food
- Health Care Products
Currently, about 400,00 acres are grown around the world. This includes about 60,000 acres in Canada. Most of the Canadian production is for oil and is exported to the US.
Hemp cultivars include oilseed varieties which only grow about 4 feet tall and are combined with a grain head. Fiber varieties can grow over 10 feet tall and can be mowed with a disc-bine, dried in the field and baled into large round or square bales. The fiber varieties have a higher cellulosic content than wood and can be a challenge for equipment. There are also dual purpose varieties which are combined for the grain and allowed to regrow for fiber.
States wishing to allow hemp production must but be granted a waiver from the USDA, and the state must also pass legislation approving hemp production and research. To date, Kentucky has done the most to promote hemp and had about 1,700 acres of various types in production this year.
Just last week in PA, Senate Bill 50 was passed out of committee which allows and promotes trial hemp production. A similar Bill, HB 967 was passed out of the House Ag and Rural Affairs committee a few weeks ago. When and whether either of these are voted on is anybody's guess. For hemp to return to places such as "Hemp"field twp., in Lancaster, markets must be found and it will have to prove a higher value than current crops. Don't buy your hemp seed just yet, but perhaps in the near future.