The Fall and Resurrection of Hemp Plants
What Was Once Declared Illegal is Now Returning as a Major Cash Crop
By Karin Deneke, Colorado
A common crop George Washington raised during the 1760s on his farms in Virginia was declared illegal in the 1930s. Also known as cannabis sativa, hemp plants originated in Asia thousands of years ago. The first industrial hemp crop was planted on North American soil by a French botanist in Nova Scotia in the year 1606.
Another strain of cannabis—much more in the limelight—is marijuana. Both plant varieties display the telltale palmate compound leaves, yet the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content of industrial hemp stands at a mere 0.3 percent—and definitely lacks the hallucinogen drug potential of marijuana.
While hemp plants are primarily cultivated for their fiber and the oil from their seeds, it is no secret that marijuana is raised for its medical and recreational uses. Its THC content, or psychoactive component, ranges between 5 to 30 percent or more.
There was a time when Washington, who had devoted himself to the improvement of American agriculture, debated whether industrial hemp could be a more lucrative cash crop than tobacco. In those days, the fiber from hemp plants was a much called-for commodity used for the production of paper, rope, and canvas. And for the first 162 years following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which was recorded on hemp fiber, marijuana was legal and industrial hemp was a common field crop in the United States.
George Washington would have turned over in his grave if he knew what transpired in the year 1937—four years after the end of alcohol prohibition—when industrial hemp production, and also the cultivation and recreational use of its psychoactive sister plant marijuana, were outlawed.
During the 1930s, certain elements in the U.S. Government, as well as big name corporations in the private sector, pushed the hemp industry into a corner. Hemp fiber posed an economic threat to the timber industry and its related paper manufacturing.
It is estimated that one acre of hemp plants can produce as much paper as two to four acres of trees.
Hemp plants can reach heights of 12 feet, and require less water, herbicides, and pesticides than other fiber crops. Hemp, when planted at a high density, within a month from emergence, can quickly spread a tight canopy over a field, and thereby choke out weeds and conserve topsoil moisture. However, the marijuana plant requires more growing space than hemp and consumes more water as it develops into a more bushy, multi-branched plant.
Years ago, industrial hemp was a sought-after crop for the manufacturing of rope, for canvas and for sailing vessels, for the roofs of covered wagons, and served as the mainstay for the printing industry. It was made into articles of clothing—the first Levi Jeans contained hemp fiber. Henry Ford’s early automobiles ran on hemp ethanol, extracted from the seeds of industrial hemp.
In the year 2012, the voters of the State of Colorado passed Amendment 64, making the personal use of marijuana legal. And Senate Bill 13-241—the cultivation of industrial hemp—was signed by Colorado’s Governor Hickenlooper in May of the following year.
A provision in the 2014 Farm Bill signed by President Obama that February, addresses section 7606, allowing universities and state departments to cultivate industrial hemp for limited purposes, and requiring certification and registration of grow sites.
In 2015, Congress introduced the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana, as both are considered cannabis species. No final action has been taken. (It is said that the recent endorsement from Bernie Sanders has given the bill a boost.)
Even though industrial hemp farming is still in the infant stages, presently 28 states, including Colorado, have recorded laws related to industrial hemp cultivation. These laws and rules differ from state to state.
On The Ground
Costilla County, part of the San Luis Valley in south central Colorado, is one of the least prosperous counties in the state. A considerable portion of its high desert, alkaline sandy loam soil is covered in sage and rabbit brush. Annual rainfall amounts are less than 10 inches. Soon after Governor Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 13-241 making industrial hemp cultivation legal in Colorado, Costilla County Commissioners in San Luis became interested in conducting industrial hemp research. This project was later transferred to the Resolana Farm/Institute in rural Costilla County, operated by Arnold and Maria Valdez. The 23-acre farm prides itself for its Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) Produce.
Arnold Valdez, a trained architect with 15 years experience in land use planning, dedicated one acre of Resolana Institute, his sustainable farming and research center which emphasizes renewable energy, to industrial hemp research. Here he tests conventional and minimum tillage, various cover crops, natural fertilizer applications, rotation of crops, and water use related to hemp.
Hemp plants mature in approximately three months, planting to harvest, and can tolerate light frost. This fits well into the high elevation farming of the San Luis Valley, where short three-month growing seasons and cool nighttime temperatures limit cultivation of other cash crops. Industrial hemp, with its large root system, will also improve the quality of heavy soils.
Resolana Institute’s research is conducted in cooperation with Adams State University of Alamosa, Colorado, and Fibershed, a California organization with a mission to develop renewable textiles, as well as the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Seeds for the project had to be imported from France. Obtaining hemp seed in the United States still presents a legal nightmare.
Hemp fiber is a versatile product with many uses. Valdez is currently experimenting with hemp blocks for construction purposes. He uses hemp fiber made from shredded dried hemp stalks, incorporates this fiber into a mixture of sandy loam soil, water, and natural wood ashes (instead of lime), and presses this mixture into a single chamber of an old hand operated compressed brick machine. The result are blocks lighter in weight than conventional adobe earth blocks, and more energy efficient, because the hemp blocks have mass on the inside and insulation on the outside, and are well suited for exterior walls. Another advantage is hemp’s resistance to mold and mildew. The usage of hemp to create building materials in the United States is on the upswing. However, we are far behind Australia and Europe.
Valdez did not separate the inner and outer layers of his hemp stalks, and fed the entire stalks through a wood chipper to obtain the fiber needed for his hemp building blocks. Colorado, at this point, does not have a facility where the pulping and breakdown of harvested industrial hemp fiber bundles is performed. The nearest plant is located in Nebraska. The inner layer of the less than an inch in diameter stalk, is referred to as pith. The pith is surrounded by an outer layer of woody core fiber called hurds, and this layer is used for textiles, cordage and fine paper products. The inner wood-like core fiber is made into animal bedding, mulch, fuel and building materials.
At another location in Costilla County, not far from the New Mexico line, the Tree of Life, a 12-acre hemp farm, is growing specially bred hemp plants with the goal of extracting high potency CBD oil (Cannabidol) from their crop. At the Tree of Life Farm, asexually reproduced cannabis clones, or feminized cuttings, were rooted in a greenhouse prior to transplanting into prepared fields in late June and early July. These clones are spaced two feet or more apart to allow room for the developing bushy plants. During the month of September, they were hand harvested by severing the stalks at the base of the plant and then processing them in a special indoor environment. CBD rich oil will be extracted from the harvested leaves and flowers. This valuable oil has anti-inflammatory properties and is used for medicinal applications. CBD is considered a non-psychoactive cannabinoid.
When It’s Legal
The following is Colorado’s interpretation of the hemp law:
“Colorado permits growing and processing Industrial Hemp by registered persons for commercial or research and development purposes.
Establishes an Industrial Hemp committee to work with the Department of Agriculture to establish an Industrial Hemp registration program and a seed certification program.
Establishes an Industrial Hemp grant research program for state institutions or higher education to conduct research to develop or recreate strains of Industrial Hemp best suited for industrial applications.”
— C.R.S.A. 35-61-101 – 35-61-109
Karin Deneke writes from her homestead in Fort Garland, Colorado.