Hemp for Victory

Because of tee-totalitarianism in the 1970s, a crop long indispensable to the United States was outlawed. This is a history of a misguided prohibition, sad and confusing as it may be, and how it relates to Ohio, an agricultural state that grows things very well, but can’t really grow hemp right now, for what amounts to no good reason at all.

The word “hemp” probably calls to mind a fair- trade hippie dress, or perhaps a surfer-ish dude in a Hollister shirt wearing a stupid choker necklace with tiny seashells and wooden beads woven throughout. You probably don’t realize that his dad’s rolling around in a Mercedes “C” Class with nearly 45 pounds of hemp built into the interior.

Hemp is one of the oldest crops cultivated by humankind; we’ve been growing it for 12,000 years. It’s been used as a food source (the oils produced by expelling the seeds contain all nine essential amino acids – a tablespoon contains more than the necessary daily dose for an adult). Its tough bast fibers have been twisted into rope, its pulp pressed into paper, and its hulls laid as soft bedding for fine, expensive British horses. Hemp is used as the raw building material for Formica-esque countertops, for interior panels of automobiles…or even for entire houses. “Hempcrete” is strong, weather-resistant, and has excellent insulating properties.

Hemp, widely cultivated in the U.S. before World War II, was used to make uniforms worn by our armed forces in the conflict. In fact, the government produced a short film (propaganda, of course) called Hemp for Victory, promoting its growth and manufacture as an alternative to manila, which was sourced primarily from Japan, the country we were warring with at the time.

It can be used for damn near everything, it’s easy to grow and likes to grow anywhere, requires little pesticide and no herbicide, actually improves poor soil, and was pretty much illegal to grow anywhere until very, very recently.

And the Ohio Rights Group, the grassroots non-profit pushing to make both medical marijuana and industrial hemp a legalized reality for the state, wants to see that trend continue. The group is currently circulating petitions to have the two varieties considered by the public this November with a state constitutional amendment that would have major impacts on both patients and farmers.

What is hemp, and why can’t I have some?
Because of hemp’s close cousin, good ol’ stanky weed. Hemp is a tall-growing cultivar of cannabis sativa. You have probably heard of cannabis, most likely from your dealer, but if he’s giving you hemp, then you have a really shitty dealer. The strains used in industrial hemp contain around 0.05 percent of the psychoactive chemical delta-9 tetrahydrocanabbinol, or “THC.” That’s the stuff that gets you high; in marijuana (same plants, but different strains), you’re more likely to find something on the order of 2- to 20-percent THC. In other words, smoking hemp is about as likely to get you high as smoking those little seashells knotted into its fibers.

Instead, hemp is used for making stuff. For a very long time, it was used to make ropes and lines for sailing ships; indeed, entire sails were constructed of the stuff (in fact, the word “canvas” comes from “cannabis.”) Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World on ships held together with hemp rope. He probably smoked it, too…George Washington sure as hell did. So did Thomas Jefferson. According to Rowan Robinson in 2010’s The Great Book of Hemp: The Complete Guide to the Environmental, Commercial, and Medicinal Uses of the World’s Most Extraordinary Plant, both of these founding fathers grew it and, wise men that they were, encouraged its use recreationally as well, fearful of the deleterious effects of alcohol and tobacco on the fragile inhabitants of the New World.

{Oh shit, we’re talking about a law so stupid and misguided it makes my brain hurt…damn it. This is going to get worse, isn’t it?}

You bet. As mentioned before, the uniforms worn by our very military were, in many cases, constructed of hemp. Marijuana was first regulated by the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which heavily taxed the plant’s cultivation, sale, and applications; it was found an unconstitutional law in 1969, but the “War on Drugs” was by then well on its way to the Narcotics Act of 1970, which categorized marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic and, because of hemp’s association with its more potent cousin, cultivation of industrial hemp was prohibited.

{So, they got rid of hemp the material because a kind of hemp was drugs? Isn’t that like outlawing tomatoes because they are a kind of deadly nightshade?}

It’s a lot like that. A material long beloved got the ax for almost no good reason at all. Hemp production and its corresponding market were down anyway, although technological advancements such as the decorticator, a more efficient way to separate the useful fibers from the pulp, came about around the same time the government began its initial crackdown. It’s long been speculated that those with strong interests (read: money) in the hot new synthetic of the time, nylon, helped speed hemp’s demise through aggressive lobbying, and the names of folk now long dead, such as Andrew Mellon and William Randolph Hearst (who, due to his newspaper holding, also had extensive pulp timber holdings) have been associated with the early campaign against the woody cannabis.

Not Everyone’s Crazy, Though
So far, there are 10 states (California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia) that have decriminalized in one way or another the cultivation of industrial, non-psychoactive hemp. Kentucky, our neighbor to the south, has gone so far as to create commissions to grow hemp at some state universities for research purposes and to determine the possible impacts of a revamped hemp industry on the state’s economy, which does have a large agricultural component. Under the leadership of a handful of Kentucky’s state representatives, as well as Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, Kentucky is making a bold new push to grow industrial hemp.

So I talked to a Kentucky farmer that I happen to know. Jason Mann, formerly an artist and graphic designer working in Columbus, returned to the family tobacco farm in Northern Kentucky several years ago. The Porter Mann family has raised tobacco, as well as cattle, in the rich bottoms of the rolling Kentucky countryside for several generations. Mann is now raising both and carrying on the family tradition on the same farm. I asked him how the state’s push for industrial hemp interested him and his small operation.

“Well, it did, until I looked into it and saw how much money you could make an acre,” he said. “You don’t make any money on it per acre, but if you were serious about it you’d probably raise a hundred acres or a thousand acres, so you got to spend a quarter of a million dollars in machinery to make $200 an acre.

“It’s a bunch of crap,” he added with a laugh.

Tobacco is a labor-intensive crop that requires heavy fertilization and near-perfect growing conditions in order to flourish. Kentucky and North Carolina are the two states in the U.S. where such conditions are regularly found. It is also labor-intensive to harvest, requiring workers to harvest the plant by hand, a special hanging barn for storage, and many hands again to strip the veins out of the broad leaves before baling it and taking it to market. Hemp, on the other hand, grows readily in relatively broad conditions, requires little water and little labor other than a planter and harvester; one person could handle hundreds of acres alone…but, like corn or soybeans, it yields far less profit per acre planted, and so at an industrial level requires much more space and different equipment.

Mann thinks that grain farmers are better set up to make the transition to producing hemp, either to supplant or supplement extant crops, but he also fears a more nefarious motive behind Kentucky’s recent embrace of its fibrous old frenemy.

“I bet if someone were to dig deep enough into why they’re pushing hemp in Kentucky, I bet they’d find the people pushing it are the ones that have an interest in corn futures and cattle futures,” he said. “Because the people that are going to grow hemp successfully are the ones already growing grain. And they’ve only got so much land, so they’re not going to raise a thousand acres of corn this year, they’re going to raise a thousand acres of hemp, and then there’s all that corn that we’re going to be short…corn is the lifeblood of people that raise livestock. Without corn we don’t have cattle and pigs and all that stuff.”

{Okay, so hemp’s had it rough for a long time, but if an ultra-conservative state like Kentucky is down, Ohio’s cool with it, too, right?}

Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. While Kentucky is certainly making its play, Ohio has been sitting on it…which is strange, considering we’d be way better at it than Kentucky. Ohio is an important agricultural state, and in terms of growing grain, it’s more important than its southern neighbor by a wide margin. In 2012 (a drought year), Kentucky produced 104 million bushels of corn; Ohio, 449 million. While Kentucky’s legendary for tobacco, Ohio farmers are far better positioned for a crop like hemp.

On February 7, President Obama signed into law the new Farm Bill, which contained a clause championed and defended by Sen. McConnell of Kentucky, freeing states to conduct research into the cultivation and industry of hemp – but Ohio, with its miles of corn and soy fields and the agricultural infrastructure to grow enough hemp to clothe millions of hippies, currently has no provision at the state level to even explore its options as a hemp producer at all…

…at least until November, if the Ohio Rights Group lands its amendment on the ballot, at which point Ohio voters might give Ohio farmers a chance to surpass Kentucky’s hemp industry before it ever even gets going.

For small farmers like Jason Mann, it doesn’t make much of a difference, but even his dismissive attitude toward hemp seems to indicate that Ohio could stand to benefit from Kentucky’s pioneering of it.

“It doesn’t affect me one way or another,” he said, shrugging into the phone. “To me it seems like the guy who was going to produce hemp was already raising grain.”

 

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