Growing Hemp as a Money-Making Crop

As American manufacturers buy increasing amounts of hemp from Europeans, American farmers argue they are missing out on growing hemp as a money making crop.


| June/July 1997



162-060-01

Nearly 4,000 acres of industrial hemp is grown in Holland and Germany, and world markets crave more.


PHOTO: MALCOLM MACKINNON

Americans farmers want to explore growing hemp as a money making crop. All hemp products manufactured for sale in the United States are made from hemp grown on foreign soil. 

Americans are used to steeping in the irrational juices of their haphazard legal culture. A vintage crock is simmering over the issue of hemp cultivation. Begin with a good stock of muddy history, throw a revitalized back-to-the-land ethos permeating the mainstream, and you have the base for the policy dish that is "industrial hemp." What is at stake is not whether there will be a commerce in hemp products in the United States. That is already happening. The question is whether American farmers will participate in growing hemp as a money making crop.

Hemp advocates and people who work with it extol the long, strong fibers of the plant, the many uses to which its various parts can be put after processing, and its prolific growth relative to other plants used for similar purposes. Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Adidas already proffer hemp products, as do Land's End and J. Peterman catalogues. Since the early '90s the number of hemp-oriented businesses in the U.S. has gone from estimates of about 20 near the beginning of 1992 to upwards of 300 and possibly closer to 500 today. A lot of these companies are fairly small outfits, though others are notching attention-fetching numbers, such as Sharon's Finest, a vegetarian foods company ranked 238 on Business Magazine Inc.'s 500 list.

Hemp's bucking ride into the mainstream American marketplace is driven more by economic and cultural factors—an emergent interest in natural fibers, for instance—than in any changes in law or new discoveries or inventions that alter the economic picture. At the same time, hemp products bolster and are bolstered by a worldwide renaissance in the development of hemp machines from specially-designed mowers to pulpers that can be fed the entire stock of plant. Chris Conrad, who in 1989 presciently founded the Business Alliance for Commerce in Hemp, a consortium of hemp product companies banded together to foster a more hospitable climate for trading in hemp goods, says, "The political-environmental shift is really what's driving it."

The hitch is, all hemp products manufactured for sale in the United States are made from hemp grown on foreign soil, in countries where it is legal to cultivate the crop. It is estimated that the cultivation of the fiber on U.S. soil would trim the price by 75 percent, while adding to the array of cash crops farmers could choose from. Across the republic, farm organizations including the the 4.5-million member American Farm Bureau, are calling to legalize industrial hemp farming. Several states have passed laws in favor of hemp cultivation. They have generally taken the form of providing for state-run test plots or allowing individual farmers to register as growers with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). And the DEA has gone out of its way to prevent the crop from being cultivated. The agency won't say how many applications it has turned down, nor even how many it has received. In at least two states, special agents have actively opposed legislation allowing for hemp cultivation. The sponsor of a Colorado bill felt an eleventh-hour letter from the DEA, delivered less than three hours before the assembly vote, killed the legislation.

The European Community has allowed the growing of hemp for years. The process requires that growers only use seed that is psychoactively inert. Cannabis horticulturalists measure the plant's drug potency in terms of a percentage of the plant's THC content. Levels below one percent THC, the psychoactive compound of primary interest to government regulators, are regarded as the industrial variety of the cannabis plant. All cannabis grown legally in Europe comes from seeds certified to be industrial grade, rather than pharmaceutical grade. Recently Canada and Jamaica have opened the door to hemp cultivation, joining a growing list of trading partners including Germany, England, France, China, The Netherlands and the Ukraine. Put simply, hemp is not marijuana and can't be transformed into marijuana any more readily than pure heroin can be extracted from garden poppies. The linking of hemp and marijuana has more to do with old habits of the drug war than a reasoned concern for the public welfare.





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