It’s hard to imagine that a single plant could fulfill most human needs. Hemp (or Industrial Hemp, as it is also known) can clothe, house, medicate, feed livestock, and even cleanse soil. All of these things, and more, can be accomplished by utilizing every part of the hemp plant. It is even harder to believe that, until the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, it was illegal to grow hemp in the United States for over 80 years. Luckily, the U.S. has finally joined the rest of the world in legalizing hemp growing.
By Ellen Rubin
One Plant…Multiple Uses
Hemp is a fast- and low-growing plant that can be harvested as a cash crop in most parts of the United States. While it is a member of the Cannabis sativa species, which includes marijuana, it does not contain sufficient levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to create a hallucinogenic effect. In fact, all hemp planted must produce less than 0.3% THC. It does, however, have a multitude of other uses.
Health & Medical Uses:
- CBD or cannabidiol is an extract of the flowers and buds of hemp. It does not have a psychoactive effect (produce a high), but many people use it to treat symptoms of arthritis, inflammation, chronic pain, or even epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. The oil is added to lotions, teas, tinctures, and vape products.
- It is included in topical pain-killing creams.
- Hemp can be added to beauty products such as shampoos and skin creams.
- Other medical uses being studied are reduction of pain, anxiety, and nausea.
As a Food Product:
- Hemp oil is high in Omega-3. It can be substituted for toxin-tainted fish oil.
- The plant itself is an effective forage plant for livestock. In Europe, the oil is used extensively as bird and animal feed.
- Hemp seed oil can be used in cooking. Because it has a low smoke point, it should not be used for frying. It has a more intense flavor than neutral vegetable oils, and may be interchangeable with olive oil. An added bonus for growers is that hemp produces twice as much oil per acre as peanuts.
- Many European beer producers use the seeds to infuse flavor.
- Because hemp produces the longest and strongest natural plant fibers, it has historically been used to make fine marine ropes. It has the added bonus of being resistant to rot and abrasion. These same attributes make it a perfect choice for military uniforms, parachute webbing, and baggage.
- Luxury designers have embraced hemp as a fabric. Giorgio Armani started a consortium to cultivate hemp in Italy. Other designer brands using hemp fabric include Versace, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, and Calvin Klein.
- Hemp is a very efficient source of paper pulp. A single acre of hemp produces 4 times the amount of pulp that trees will over a 20-year growing cycle. Hemp also requires only approximately 4 months of growth before it is harvestable.
Alternative to Petroleum Products:
- Plastic can be produced from either the fiber or oil of hemp. Because of the higher cost of producing hemp oil, the cellulose fibers are generally used. At this time, creating hemp-based plastic is both energy-intensive and expensive. There are advantages, however. Hemp plastic is durable – it is between 2.5 – 3.5 times stronger than petroleum based plastic. It is also 5 times stiffer, heat resistant, non-toxic and pesticide free. This makes it perfect for culinary use. It is also recyclable and biodegradable within 6 months. Numerous auto and airplane manufacturers, including BMW, Volvo, Mercedes, Audi, Lotus, and Porsche, have used hemp-based plastics for their interiors for over a decade.
- Hemp can produce two types of biofuel. Bio-diesel is made from the oil of pressed seeds. Ethanol and methanol are made from fermented stalks. Mercedes Benz tested hemp bio-diesel on their cars and found that the mileage was comparable to fossil diesel fuel. Hemp biofuel could eventually become a viable sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.
- When mixed with limestone and water, a hemp composite material forms a type of concrete (Hempcrete) that can be used in building. Though it can’t be used as a load-bearing material by itself, it is significantly lighter than similar materials (1/9th the weight), and works very well as an insulation material that is airtight, yet breathable, flexible, and repels some vermin.
- Hemp blocks can be formed into a building material similar to concrete blocks. They have a high thermal mass capacity that stores energy and releases it gradually. The blocks are resistant to insects, fungi, mold, mildew, fire, rodents, and termites.
The Legalization of Hemp
Growing and spinning hemp into usable fiber has been done for at least 12,000 years. Historically, it was not only legal to grow hemp in the U.S., it was encouraged. In fact, laws enacted in 1619 in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut made it illegal not to grow a certain number of acres of hemp. These laws were not repealed until 1930.
Industrialists with interests in paper (especially newspaper) and chemical production saw hemp as an economic threat. The DuPonts, Randolph Hearst, and Andrew Mellon created a “reefer madness” campaign to have hemp classified with marijuana as a dangerous product. The Marijuana Tax Act was passed in 1937 and regulated the hemp industry out of existence.
The Farm Bill of 2018 removed hemp from the list of Schedule I controlled substances, thereby eliminating a variety of legal and financial restraints. Perhaps most importantly to individual farmers, hemp crops are now eligible for crop insurance. Farmers also now have access to the national banking and bankruptcy systems, and can deduct applicable expenses from their federal income tax returns. Processes developed to produce hemp-derived products are eligible for federal trademark protection. Additionally, hemp seed is now available locally, or at least does not have to be imported internationally.
By removing hemp from the Controlled Substances Act which regulates narcotics, the federal government transfers oversight from the Department of Justice to the Department of Agriculture and to individual states. By 2019, 33 states had enacted legislation that makes industrial hemp growing legal subject to regulation. Most require that farmers apply for a license to grow a minimum square footage and provide GPS coordinates of the acreage that will be under cultivation. Growers must also pass a background check, and be free of criminal offenses.
Because marijuana and hemp look and smell nearly identical, there is strict governmental oversight. Growing hemp for personal use is currently only allowed in those states that allow people to grow marijuana for personal use; even then, the number of plants allowed is severely limited. Check all pertinent statutes to learn what state and local regulations permit.
There are many advantages to growing hemp as a cash crop. Because hemp is fast-growing, (with only 4-6 months necessary until harvest) more than one crop can be grown in a single year. The dense root system and plant growth means that few weeds can emerge, eliminating the need for herbicides or labor-intensive weeding.
Hemp can be grown in a variety of soils, although additional water requirements are need in light soil. In average soil, between 20-30” of rainfall or irrigation is necessary during the growing season, with moist conditions needed during germination. Hemp is a great addition to crop rotations to equalize the pressure on soil fertilization.
Hemp has several other ecological benefits. It converts carbon dioxide to oxygen far better than trees. It is also a hyperaccumulator, meaning that it will extract certain toxins, such as cadmium, from the soil. Therefore, hemp can be used at superfund sites to improve the soil.
The Economics of Hemp
Currently, growing hemp can cost between US$200-1,000 an acre, with the average being $500. Planting density depends on the targeted purpose. When harvesting for general usage, for instance, 400,000 plants can be planted per acre. If the goal is to harvest the flowers and buds for CBD oil, the space needed at harvest-time limits the density to 1,000-1,600 plants per acre. Generally, it takes between 700-1,200 lbs of seed per acre; and a single harvested acre, depending on purpose, can yield any of the following:
- 700 pounds of grain yields 22 gallons of oil + 530 pounds of meal
- 5,300 pounds of straw which equals 1,300 pounds of fiber
- 16 tons of forage which is worth $1,800, several times more per acre than similar crops like wheat or barley
- 8,000 lbs of seeds will yield 3,000 gallons of seed oil and 6,000 lbs of high protein hemp flour
Across the U.S., the number of acres of hemp planted between the first and second year of legalization multiplied almost 5 times for a total of 128,320 acres in 2019. In 2012, the US hemp industry was valued at approximately $500 million in retail product sales. Five years later, in 2017, it had increased to $820 million. It is projected that by 2022, the hemp industry will be worth $20 billion. With continued acreage planted, domestic availability of seed, and research into uses, the hemp industry shows an exponential potential for profitability.