Today, many people see industrial hemp as a niche industry, but it wasn’t always that way. In the Colonial era, hemp was a widely cultivated crop, and in some areas, farmers were breaking the law if they didn’t grow it. Hemp was often used as a textile, fiber and paper, and some early drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on it.
Hemp Production Becomes More Difficult
However, by the 1950s, it was very difficult for hemp growers to profit. The passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 hadn’t helped — it required all such farmers to be licensed and pay taxes for the activity. But, the availability of cheap, industrial fibers is what crippled the hemp industry.
Later, the U.S. government did not differentiate between hemp and marijuana growth, causing growers to deal with tight regulations that hampered or prevented their efforts to produce the crop. Recently, the U.S. Senate voted to legalize cultivating, processing and selling industrial hemp through legislation known as the Farm Bill.
Plus, some U.S. states are giving momentum to a rebirth of the practice of producing hemp for industrial uses.
New York Seeks to Become a National Leader
New York governor Andrew Cuomo hopes his state will become a place others look up to in the realm of industrial hemp production. In 2015, he gave the go-ahead for the Industrial Hemp Agricultural Research Pilot Program. It allowed a restricted number of educational institutions to grow and study hemp.
Two years later, the state got rid of the cap and opened up the program to farmers and businesses. Plus, Governor Cuomo signed legislation to make industrial hemp recognized as a commodity under New York’s Agricultural and Markets Law. He allocated millions of dollars in grant funding to help eligible businesses with the costs of processing hemp, including the purchase of new equipment.
Experts at Cornell University are working to find and breed the types of hemp most suitable for New York's climate. They’re using genomics to speed up the growing process and will expand their techniques to the northernmost and southernmost parts of the state this year. The Cornell University campus was also the site of New York’s first industrial hemp research forum in February 2018.
For 2018, the state has granted 62 permits to New York businesses wishing to grow hemp. As such, the Department of Agriculture and Markets estimates the total industrial hemp production in New York to expand to 3,500 acres in 2018, a 1,500-acre increase from the previous year.
Pennsylvania Also Carrying Out Hemp Trials
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is also trying to bring back industrial hemp production. Like New York, it's running a pilot program that ends the 80-year absence of hemp production in Pennsylvania. The 14 research permits given to a dozen researchers in 2017 resulted in hemp being grown in 13 Pennsylvanian counties.
These Experiments Could Reduce the Country’s Dependence on Imported Hemp
In 2016, there were $688 million in hemp sales in the U.S., but imported material comprised most of it. More than two dozen states legalized hemp production under trial programs such as those mentioned above.
And, if hemp production continues to get support in those places, the practice could substantially boost state economies and spur job creation. For instance, Kentucky has one of the leading hemp industries in the nation. There, the crop spreads across nearly 13,000 acres and gives farmers up to $50 per pound of dried hemp flower.
At the University of Minnesota, researchers began testing hemp varieties and sowing 30-40 pounds of seed per acre and receiving yields of as many as 1,300 pounds per acre. With outcomes like that, it’s not hard to see how hemp production could support producers’ livelihoods.
Tens of Thousands of Uses for Hemp
A recent report from the Congressional Research Service describes more than 25,000 ways to use hemp across nine sub-categories ranging from foods to construction materials. In 2017, most of the value of U.S. hemp imports came from seeds eventually used as ingredients for hemp-based goods. Canada was the largest importer serving the U.S., with 95 percent of the imports coming from that country.
Some Limitations Exist
Although the U.S. hemp market seems promising, researchers caution there are still obstacles to overcome. For example, many questions remain unanswered about hemp grain yield traits, and it'll be necessary to get to the bottom of those to maintain consistently high-quality outputs.
Moreover, gaps in the supply chain mean that farmers often get their seeds outside of the ideal growing windows, thereby hampering their efforts. Some are also reluctant to scale up their dedication to hemp until it becomes clear that the trial programs will end in full-scale state legislation.
The Future Is Unknown
It seems nearly inevitable that reducing long-standing restrictions in the U.S. would help farmers and consumers alike. However, there’s no way to tell whether the demand for hemp will continue over the long-term and if state legislators will keep supporting it. Despite those uncertainties, some pioneering farmers soldier on and see hope on the horizon.
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