Hemp has been a controversial topic in recent decades in the US, but the crop itself has been in production for thousands of years. In fact, a piece of hemp fabric has been dated back to 8,000 BC. The United States has a long history of its own hemp production, which included the original colonies. Recent legal changes regarding the production of hemp mean that this crop is going to explode in the next decade, possibly becoming a staple crop, much as soybeans and corn are now. Hemp is now taking its place as a driving force in the United States’ agricultural industry.
The Founding Fathers
Hemp has been produced in the United States from the very beginning of its settlement by Europeans. In fact, several founding fathers grew hemp on their land, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Colonial farmers in Jamestown, Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut were legally required to grow a certain amount of hemp during the 1600s because the crop produced such necessary products. In the 1700s, farmers were encouraged to grow hemp by way of incentives such as bounties and subsidies. Hemp was desirable for the fabric, rope and paper it produced as well as other useful items. In fact, some farmers used hemp to pay their taxes. Perhaps most surprising of all, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence on hemp. Hemp was prized and not considered in any way to be a controversial crop in the founding colonies of the US.
19th Century Hemp Production
Hemp growing spread as the nation expanded. By the 19th century, hemp was a big crop in a number of states, with Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky leading the way. Production remained strong until the late 1800s when demand for the rope used as rigging began to wane due to the dominance of steamships. After the Civil War, Kentucky was the only remaining state with a true hemp industry until WWI, when increased demand sparked a resurgence in hemp production in several states. Hemp production was made significantly easier when harvesting the crop became mechanized. WWII also temporarily bolstered the hemp industry. After the war, hemp as a significant crop ceased to exist for some time.
Factors in Declining Hemp Production
Several factors killed off much of the remaining hemp production. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was meant to limit the use of marijuana as a drug. In the process, it turned over regulation of hemp growing to the Department of Revenue, which was in charge of licensing growers. Hemp farmers also had to pay a hemp tax and sign an agreement that they would not use the plant as a drug. This change did discourage some hemp production, but the biggest blow to hemp came from the development of cheap, mass-produced synthetic fibers in the 1950s.
Current Production Status
Despite its complicated legal status, hemp had made a comeback in the United States in recent years, in large part due to the popularity of CBD oil, which has helped a number of patients with pain, seizures, anxiety and other physical and emotional ailments. Hemp production has also been aided by the legalization and/or decriminalization of marijuana. A number of states legalized hemp on the state level in the last decade. In December of 2018, a new farm bill became law that legalized hemp growing on the federal level. Since farmers are now able to purchase crop insurance for hemp, production is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. Hemp production is already a big industry in some states, however.
States Leading in Hemp Production
Colorado is more closely associated with cannabis production, but it is also the leading producer of hemp. On the state level, hemp was legalized in Colorado back in 2012, so producers have had a huge headstart on the competition.
Kentucky has retaken its place as a major producer of hemp since the crop was legalized by state legislators in 2013. Before the change in federal law, there were over 200 licensed hemp growers in the state as well as 43 processors.
Oregon, North Dakota, Minnesota and New York are other major producers of hemp. These states benefited from their legislators legalizing hemp years before the federal law changed. Other agricultural states are almost certain to embrace hemp as a crop now that the crop is legal on the federal level.
In addition to rope, fabric, paper and CBD oil, hemp can be used to make a number of profitable products, including food items. Hemp seeds are popular for their high nutrition level. Body lotions, oils, shoes, drinks, cleaning products and even plastic can be made by hemp, which means the potential market for hemp is enormous.
Hemp was an important crop before the United States was formed. The pilgrims brought hemp seed with them when they fled religious persecution. Hemp was widely accepted, and its production was encouraged and even mandated at times. Worry about its possible narcotic effects and the production of cheap replacement fibers led to the industry nearly dying off.
Now, new laws and new products have led to a hemp resurgence that may make it a leading crop in the United States in 2019 and beyond!