Bob Clayton’s home in Tarpon Springs is made of “hempcrete” — a mix of industrial hemp and other materials. / J.D. Vivian

Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate majority leader, has filed a bill that would legalize the growing of industrial hemp. The Republican is from Kentucky, the leader in U.S. industrial-hemp production. More than 12,000 acres are in production in the state, which has 57 processors for the hardy, versatile material.

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An unidentified farmworker harvests ramie in Belle Glade in 1955. / Courtesy

Hemp-like crop grew in Glades

Ramie, a crop similar to hemp, was grown in the Everglades Agricultural Area (the Glades) in Florida during World War II but fell out of favor in the mid-1950s. So growing ramie ceased.

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During the war, the U.S. military quickly found uses for ramie. In a 1940s article titled “Ramie: A New Economic Opportunity,” Earle L. Rauber, in the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s Monthly Review publication, wrote, “One of the earliest uses was as a packing for the stern tubes of vessels to prevent sea water from backing up along the drive shafts.”

This bale of harvested ramie was lent to the Lawrence E. Will Museum of the Glades by Joseph Orsenigo, an agricultural researcher at the Everglades Research & Education Center in Belle Glade. Mr. Orsenigo died in 2009. / J.D. Vivian

Furthermore, its strength – much higher than that of other fibers – made it “a superior material for the manufacture of halyards and other naval cordage (such as) … canvases, awnings, sails and fish nets,” according to Rauber’s article.

A house made of hemp

Bob Clayton of Tarpon Springs built, and lives in, Florida’s first known “hempcrete” home. In almost every way, the home is like any other. “It meets all building codes, and it will take 175-mile-an-hour winds,” he said.

Once dry, the hempcrete, though much lighter than concrete, has a similar color and feel.

The hempcrete was poured into special forms, onto the house’s 2-by-6-inch wood studs. Then the area was covered for about a week, Clayton explained, to protect it from rain, and allowed to dry.

The retired mechanical engineer said that his Tarpon Springs home offers other advantages: “This house ‘breathes.’ That’s very important in Florida.” A 1-inch space between the framing and the interior walls allows air circulation – a major plus in the state’s humid climate, in which mold and mildew can easily thrive.

In addition, termites cannot eat the hempcrete.