June 1, 2011

A Brief History of HEMP in AMERICA by David Brannon

Here's David Brannon's most recent editorial contribution for Baked Life.

Hemp was integral to early history of the nation, and the plant itself was exchanged as a form of money throughout most of the Americas from 1631 to the early 1800’s. Hemp and flax were both important and most farms had at least a field devoted to one of these crops.

By 1721 British colonists were receiving farm subsidies for producing hemp. England and Holland looked to their colonies to furnish enough hemp to supply their two enormous navies. At times colonial governments made the production of hemp compulsory.

In 1733 South Carolina hired a writer to create a book about hemp then travel the state promoting both hemp and flax. Georgia provided free seed and instruction to farmers in 1767. By the late colonial period North Carolina provided warehousing and inspection services for exports of hemp and flax.

Hemps major competitor in the south was tobacco. When tobacco prices were high, farmers preferred to grow tobacco. Whenever tobacco prices fell those farmers returned to producing hemp. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp, with Jefferson writing about the crop and inventing machines and new systems to processes the plant. In 1810 John Quincy Adams travelled to Russia to study hemp manufacturing techniques there.

As the nation moved west so did hemp. Conestoga wagons were covered with canvas hemp and its new lightweight version called canvas duck. But the Civil War [1861-1865], while initially sparking demand for hemp, ultimately devastated the southern agricultural economy. National policy was in the hands of the industrial North and their fiber preference was for cheaper cotton. After the conflict, when southern farmers could not even produce sufficient hemp for the bagging needs of the cotton market, jute stepped in to fill that shortfall. Another cheaper alternative to hemp had entered the market.

Hemp had one huge disadvantage -- cost. Breaking hemp [preparing it for market] accounted for nearly two-thirds of the expense of the crop from seed to market. Most breaking was done in the winter when farmers could not work their fields. Hemp provided year-round jobs but increased costs. Cotton had its cost-reducing-gin; hemp did not.

But new uses for hemp, especially the pulp of the plant, called hurds, were on the horizon. Industries as diverse as paper, plastics, and explosives could use the cellulose-rich hurds. USDA Bulletin 404, published in 1916, stated that “without a doubt, hemp will continue to be one of the staple agricultural crops of the United States.

In the 1930’s the Ford Motor Company was planning to build and fuel a fleet of cars using hemp and other plant matter. Popular Mechanics magazine wrote, “[h]emp will not compete with other American products. Instead it will displace imports of raw material and manufactured products produced by underpaid coolie and peasant labor and it will provide thousands of jobs for American workers throughout the land.”

Then came 1937. And everything changed.

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