high hopes for hemp

This hempcrete brick was made with hemp shivs, lime (as a binding agent), and water. Hemp shivs, also called “hurds,” are the woody, inner part of the hemp stalk that is left over when the bark fiber is removed. /
J.D. Vivian

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story on hemp. Part 2 will run on Oct. 26.

A billion dollars is a lot of money today. But in 1938, $1 billion bought a lot more, of course. In fact, to have the same buying power in 2016 as $1 billion had 78 years ago, you’d need $17.082 billion, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator.

So in February 1938, when Popular Mechanics Magazine published the story “New Billion-Dollar Crop,” that headline likely raised a lot of eyebrows. The article that followed probably raised even more.

The three-page story outlined, in almost gushing detail, how hemp – a crop used throughout the world for thousands of years, including today – would benefit farmers and consumers alike. For example, according to the anonymous article, hemp:

“is an easy crop to grow”;
“can be grown in any state” (Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states);
“The long roots penetrate and break the soil to leave it in perfect condition for the next year’s crop”;
“government figures estimate that 10,000 acres devoted to hemp will produce as much paper as 40,000 acres of average pulp land.”

Furthermore, hemp:

“will not compete with other American products”;
“will provide thousands of jobs for American workers”;
“has great tensile strength and durability. It is used to produce more than 5,000 textile products”;
“is one of the toughest fibers in the world”;
“The paper industry … amounts to over $1,000,000,000 a year, and of that, eighty percent is imported. But hemp will produce every grade of paper.”

Bale of kenaf, lent by Joseph Orsenigo. / J.D. Vivian

A bale of kenaf, also called “Bombay hemp” (Hibiscus cannabinus), at the Lawrence E. Will Museum of the Glades in Belle Glade. During World War II, the U.S. government produced a film to persuade American farmers to grow the strong, versatile fiber. But kenaf, like its cousin, ramie, never caught on in the Glades. / J.D. Vivian

Hemp is a versatile plant

Even hemp leftovers are beneficial: “The woody ‘hurds’ remaining after the fiber has been removed … can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane.”

The article envisioned the raw hemp fibers being used for items such as “strong twine or rope … burlap … or linoleum backing. … It can, in fact, be used to replace foreign fibers (‘produced by underpaid … peasant labor’) which now flood our markets.”

Bob Clayton, who built his Tarpon Springs home of “hempcrete,” advocates strongly for growing the crop. His house, built in 2014, meets all construction codes. But he disputes the “more than 25,000 products” that Popular Mechanics envisioned hemp producing.

“There are two guys in Holland who have each worked about 30 years in hemp, and they have about a dozen products between them,” said Clayton, the first Floridian to build a house from hemp fibers that he imported, legally, from England.

Problems develop for hemp

Hemp was much-touted and -praised in the 1938 article; nevertheless, there were problems, as the story noted in the closing two paragraphs. “One obstacle in the onward march of hemp is the reluctance of farmers to try new crops.”

Another involved the machine, the decorticator, used to harvest the plants; the problem was economics. “The machine cannot be operated profitably unless there is enough acreage within driving range (from the farm), and farmers cannot find a profitable market unless there is machinery to handle the crop.”

That problem is still true today, Clayton noted. “The largest-size decorticating plant will need about 5,000 acres of hemp within a 100-mile radius for a single-shift operation. A double-shift operation would need 10,000 acres.”

A Catch-22

“Decorticating plants are expensive to build, and investment in hemp is restricted by the DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) ban,” he continued.

So the situation is a classic Catch-22: To justify building a plant, a lot of hemp would have to be in production. But such a large amount of hemp can’t be grown unless farmers have some way to process it; and they can’t grow hemp until restrictions are lifted.

Yet another obstacle stood in hemp’s path, according to “New Billion-Dollar Crop”: “The blossom of the female hemp plant contains marijuana, a narcotic, and it is impossible to grow hemp without producing the blossom. … However, the connection of hemp, as a crop, and marijuana seems to be exaggerated. …

“If federal regulations can be drawn to protect the public without preventing the legitimate culture of hemp, this new crop can add immeasurably to American agriculture and industry.”

Next week: Hemp falls from grace.