The State of Hemp Farming In North America

By Jeremy Bezooyen

As we already know, hemp plants have been a major part of history world wide, with more than 25 thousand documented uses, some as early as 8,000 BC. For thousands of years, humans have used the seed for its food (grain) and oil content (for paints and varnishes). Canvas—derived from the word cannabis—was made from hemp fibre and utilized in sails, rope, shoes, and clothing. Hemp was one of the first crops planted at Port Royal by Champlain, and the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper.

It’s no surprise that the crop itself is naturally grown and environmentally friendly, with a good part of Canada’s hemp production being certified organic. Since the plant is naturally resistant to insects and disease, the need for most, or all, herbicides or pesticides is eliminated. Plants grow so closely together, that com- mon weeds don’t have space or the opportunity to grow. Leaves and extra plant material that fall off naturally, replenish nutrients into the soil, making hemp a great rotational crop as well. All hemp— everywhere—is GMO-free. Certified organic production uses natural cover crops, and compost as safe, non-toxic alternatives to chemical fertilizers.

Despite the myriad of uses and environmental benefits, hemp industries in North America are still playing catch up (compared to other fibre industries). In the 1930s, at a time when hemp was poised to make great industrial leaps in terms of production viability (potentially making it a contender against other establishing industries such as cotton and petrochemical markets), hemp was grouped in with marijuana (its psychoactive cousin) and banned from production.

After nearly 70 years of misinformation, the word hemp still garners a certain snicker factor among social groups that are unfamiliar with the difference. Hemp and marijuana plants may belong to the same family, but they are both very different breeds. The plants are bred for nearly opposite qualities and should there-fore not be confused. Hemp is grown for the fibre or seed quality, while marijuana is harvested for its high THC content. Understanding this fundamental difference, while recognizing the environmental and economic benefits of industrial hemp production, is necessary for combating stigma surrounding such a vital crop.

Interestingly, because of the simi- larity between the two species—both belonging to the plant genus cannabis—crops of either variety have to take care to avoid cross pollinating with the other. Mixing the two destroys the viability of either plant— marijuana becomes stalkier and less potent, with less THC; while hemp grown for seed or fibre may result in higher THC levels, causing it to fail testing.

In Canada, the distinction between plant and pot was recognized in Feb. of 1998, when the Canadian government legalized the commercial growth of industrial hemp, with licenses administered by Health Canada, and crops subject to THC testing. By 2007, there were an estimated 4,800 hectares of hemp growing in all regions—primarily in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Most hemp grown in Canada is utilized for grain or oil production, with the majority of it exported to markets south of the border.

In America, nine states have legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp—North Dakota, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, West Vir- ginia, Vermont, and Oregon—but are still required to have a license from the DEA. In some cases, such a license has been difficult or almost impossible to get. There has been a lot of activism surrounding industrial hemp production in the US, with efforts and educational campaigns continuing, including “Hemp History Week”, May 17-23, 2010.

Even where it is legal to grow, farmers in North America still need to con- sider which industrial markets to cater to.
Hemp can be grown primarily for seed/oil production, or for more fibre content. When grown for fibre, hemp undergoes a process called “retting,” which separates the outer bast fibres from the internal core fibres. The core fibres are often used for low end purposes such as hemp concrete or bedding, while the bast goes to more technical markets like textile production.

However, bast fibre quality is highly dependent on the quality of decor- tication, along with the transport and storage of the hemp bales. It is also best produced as a dedicated fibre—not allowed to produce seed. While dual markets (hemp grown for both seed and fibre) may seem attractive, fibre quality may not meet the standards of foreign processing facilities.

There are no lack of facilities available for processing hemp seed in North America. However, there are currently no manufacturers that can process hemp fibre directly. Due to these limitations in fibre quality, storage, and transport, hemp production to this point has been necessarily geared toward the grain and oil side.

As interest in natural fibres increases (due to a rising demand for alternatives to synthetic and wood fibres) new developments will continue toward Canada having its own hemp processing plant. Until that time, North
American hemp textiles will remain dependent on other countries with established fibre processing capabilities.

While this versatile and eco-friendly plant is increasing once again in popularity, it’s clear that there is still much work to be done. It still can not be grown in many parts of the United States, and even in Canada. Farmers growing hemp are limited in the markets they can sell to. By educating individuals about the environmental necessity for hemp, while combating stigma, we can encourage the development of new hemp products, materials, and manufacturing facilities and further establish the hemp Industry as the “natural industrial solution.”