For the last century, the United States had a complicated relationship with hemp. During the formative years of modern drug law, this once-common industrial crop became a legal liability for farmers. It even got outlawed – a case of guilt by association. Hemp is a member of the cannabis family, which got it lumped in with marijuana regulations during the 1930s, ’40s, and later. Even though the hemp species has no psychoactive effects, lazy legislation drawn under the guise of protecting the public effectively removed this plant from the nation’s fields for more than 50 years.
Efforts to re-legalize hemp seemed like an agri-political sideshow for decades, and entire generations of farmers grew up knowing little more about hemp than that it was 1) cannabis and 2) illegal to grow. But groups continued to advocate for the misunderstood plant, and about 10 years ago their message caught the attention of then-Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. Embracing a crop so closely associated to marijuana came with inherent political risks, but those who defended it made a simple but convincing argument: This is a historical crop that our parents used to grow, it’s not a drug, and its legal status represents a classic example of misguided over-regulation.
During that time, hemp started making its resurgence in the marketplace. Fibers derived from the plant’s stalk were being used in everything from clothing to car parts, and its seeds and oil became popular ingredients in dietary and body care products. Hemp represented millions of dollars worth of sales, yet it was still illegal to grow in the United States.
That all changed in 2014 when the Farm Bill went into effect, as the legislation allows states, under some conditions, to grow hemp for research purposes. Republicans (many from Kentucky, a state that used to be a top hemp producer) led a push to have the crop decriminalized. Now, U.S. farmers find themselves behind the rest of the world in their understanding of hemp’s growing characteristics and in having a base of processors to buy their crops.
We talked to Eric Steenstra, executive director of the Hemp Industries Association and longtime member of Vote Hemp, a 501(c)(4) lobby group that has been working to change hemp laws at the state and federal levels for 15 years. He explains the crop’s past, its industrial potential, and the beginnings of its new future in American agriculture.
U.S. Agriculture Outlook: Hemp was a very common crop in the United States through World War II. Why did it drop off?
Eric Steenstra: In 1937, when Congress passed the Marihuana [sic] Tax Act to regulate marijuana, they didn’t make a clear distinction between hemp and marijuana – just cannabis. If you wanted to grow hemp, you had to pay tax and get a marijuana producer’s tax stamp. It was a bit of stigma and an additional requirement, so a lot of farmers didn’t want to deal with that.
There was a push to grow hemp during World War II but not after it. The government didn’t promote it anymore, and it dropped off. And then in 1970, they passed the Controlled Substances Act, and hemp was completely thought of as marijuana. It didn’t matter [that it is a] different variety of plant; it was defined as [a] cannabis plant, so it was all considered to be marijuana according to law.
Can you please explain the difference between hemp and marijuana?
They are two different varieties of the same plant species. A rough analogy one might use: This is the difference between a Chihuahua and a St. Bernard. They are both dogs, but they are each unique animals with different characteristics.
Hemp is a genetically distinct non-drug variety of the cannabis plant. Hemp is grown for its fiber and for its seed, so typically it is row crop. When grown for fiber it is planted densely (3 to 6 inches) on center similar to corn, with tall stalks.
On the other hand, a marijuana plant will be grown like a bush to maximize foliage. Marijuana varieties of cannabis (Cannabis indica) plants are bred for production and use of leaves, flowers, and resin, which contain the plant’s psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hemp (Cannabis sativa) has very low amounts of THC (by law it is less than .3 of a percent). The scientific community considers hemp varieties of cannabis to have less than 1 percent THC content. [Translation: hemp cannot create a “high” sensation similar to marijuana.]
Cannabis plants are dioecious and have male and female varieties on separate individuals of the same species. Marijuana growers want only female plants, and don’t want pollination to occur because they don’t want seeds. Hemp is grown very differently, and in some states where marijuana is grown legally, marijuana growers came out against hemp legislation because they were afraid it would negatively affect the growth of their crops.
Even as recently as 2003 there were federal laws being written that singled out hemp as an illegal crop. What change on the political front made recent legalization possible?
So, sometimes things like this appear to have happened overnight, but of course they don’t. And so with hemp this has been a very long process, and we formed this political group [Vote Hemp] in 2000 with the goal of working with policymakers. We worked step by step with state legislators; the first five years we didn’t have any federal legislation. But we finally got our first bill in 2005 – that was sponsored by Ron Paul, who was at that time a mainstream Republican-Libertarian policymaker. We struggled for a few years to get people to support the bill – we got a handful, 10 or 12 the first year or two.
Slowly, we went door to door, office to office educating members about the issues. We were also working with people at the grassroots level to contact policymakers at the state level.
Another thing that happened was that companies wanted to make products with hemp. And since no one could grow it here, they just imported it from overseas. More and more companies did this, and their products were successful. We were tracking those products in the market, and the market has grown to hundreds of millions of dollars now.
Policymakers took a look at that and said, “Hey, this is an industry here. It’s creating jobs. It makes sense, but [hemp] is imported. Why shouldn’t American farmers be able to participate in that market?”
Despite being an illegal crop for so long, hemp has actually been quite mainstream in the U.S. marketplace for a number of years, right?
People are usually surprised to hear that companies like BMW, Mercedes, Ford, and Daimler have all used hemp-based composites in their materials. There are millions of cars on the road with hemp parts. For example, BMW has been using hemp materials in their door panels since, I think, about 2004. You’ll find this in their 3 Series and 5 Series cars. This was a big improvement for them, because they previously used a fiberglass-based product, and now they have a product that’s lighter in weight, performs better, is recyclable at the car’s end of life, and lower in cost. So it’s a win-win for the auto industry to move to a natural fiber-based composite.
You also have international designers like Calvin Klein and Georgio Armani that have made clothing and other textile goods from hemp. Other household brand names include shoes companies like Nike, Adidas, Vans, and Converse, [which] have all [made products using hemp].
In the food market, Nature’s Path – a $250-300 million organic-natural products company with processing plants in Washington and Wisconsin – has a successful line of cereal called Hemp Plus® Granola and a number of other hemp items in their range.
Nutiva® is a Richmond, California-based company, with a Superfoods line that includes hemp products. Living Harvest is a maker of hemp milk – this is a very popular product because of its fatty acid profile and its omega-3 and omega-6 balance is really good. Those are just a few examples, and we are seeing a lot of new and novel uses of hemp as well – and there will be more and more developing. We estimate total market for foods and body care is $184 million.
That’s not including textiles and the building materials market, where hemp is up and coming. For example, the wooden core of the plant is [blended with lime] in a product called Hempcrete. … It has incredible insulation property, breathes naturally, and is mold resistant. This is a non-toxic and natural insulation wall material that has been used extensively in Europe and is now coming to the U.S.
There is a very significant marketplace for hemp, and it’s growing every year.
What did the first season of legalized hemp look like in the United States?
The Farm Bill was approved by President [Barack] Obama and signed into law early in 2014. A handful of states – including Kentucky, Vermont, and Colorado – started implementing research and pilot programs.
There are 30 states that do not distinguish hemp from marijuana. More states are working on legislation for 2015, so I expect that number to go down. We have researchers interested in Kentucky, Colorado, Hawaii, North Dakota, California, and a number of other states that are looking at this as well. Some states had been sitting on the sidelines of hemp research prior to the Farm Bill because hemp was illegal, and the law didn’t distinguish it from marijuana. Many states told us, “What’s the point of passing legislation to regulate hemp farming if federal law says it’s illegal?” The 2014 Farm Bill has opened this up. There are research and pilot programs now, and the states are saying, “OK, now we can go in and do this. The USDA has this in their sights, and it is another crop we can look at.” I am hopeful that the next Congress will pass legislation to allow for commercial hemp farming in states that will allow farmers to grow hemp.
During 2014, Kentucky, Colorado, and Vermont had farmers who were licensed by [the] state to grow hemp. Kentucky had a number of pilot programs where private farmers grew hemp as agents of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and provided the results of those pilot programs back to the department. The department imported and provided seed to the farmers in exchange for them sharing the results.
What conditions does hemp need to grow well?
Well, hemp has been grown historically in many states. The one that has the most history for hemp farming is Kentucky and the state was known for providing high-quality hemp seed to farmers in other states. We have historical records of it being grown as far west as California, and as far north as North Dakota and Canada. All through the Midwest – Minnesota, Wisconsin. Indiana had a big program, too. I don’t think there are many places where hemp can’t be grown in the U.S. Well, maybe not Alaska.
Hemp is such a hardy plant that when it was banned, it was regarded as a noxious weed because they couldn’t get rid of it. It would come back each year. It needs decent well-drained soil and minimally 8 to10 inches of rain per year – optimally 13 to 15 inches per year. And like every crop, it needs to be rotated properly.
Compared to cotton – water input for cotton [is] huge – hemp doesn’t require as much [pesticide or herbicide]. It can be grown conventionally – it takes nitrogen and fertilizers – but more than 50 percent of cannabis is grown organically. That’s how it’s grown for much of the food market
What parts of the hemp plant have commercial value?
There are a few main areas of the plant that have value. The first is the stalk, which breaks down to the bast fiber, or bark. It’s the long fiber that runs down the length of the stalk. It’s very hardy and one of strongest natural fibers known to man.
It was used for thousands of years in ships; they all had hemp sails. If you look up “canvas” in the dictionary, you will see it is derived from the word “cannabis.” Before we had automobiles and planes, the biggest method of world travel was ships and navies. They used hemp sails and ropes, in addition to the caulk that kept them afloat (oakum is a blend of hemp fiber and pine tar). Hemp was extremely important.
[The] core of the stalk is woody [and] can be used for cellulose: for building materials, animal bedding, or any other material whose basic building block is cellulose.
The seeds are very nutritious. They have a very good balance of omega-3 and omega-6. They are also used to produce hemp oil, which can be used to produce biodiesel, lubricants, paints, and other materials. … When the oil is pressed from the seed you get seed cake, which is a great source of protein. [You can also find protein powders on the market.] Hemp nut, which comes from removing the outer shell to extract the seed’s core, is very popular and is found in many food products.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is known for having medical benefits, especially for treating seizures. CBD extract comes from the cannabis flower, and it has garnered a lot of interest for hemp. This is an area that is up and coming.
Now that hemp has been legalized, how will advocacy change?
At this point, hemp is still in an early stage; we’re looking to connect people who are looking to do business. “Where can I sell my crop?” It may take a couple of years for the market to shift toward U.S. farmers, because right now producers are getting hemp grown in Canada, China, and elsewhere. But as processers come online here, producers will start to look for more local [providers]. That will be their opportunity to connect.
Can hemp be compared to any modern North American crops?
I often point to soy. It was a relatively niche crop in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and today it is probably one of the top three crops in the U.S. If you look at the nutritional profile of the soybean, I think hemp is very competitive. I think hemp has a better nutritional profile, and more people [are] looking for alternatives to soy. Hemp from a fiber standpoint has way more potential than soy does. I think hemp can eventually become a commodity like soy or corn. It will take some time for it to develop, but within 20 years, we can see hemp become a major commodity crop in the United States, being grown on millions of acres.
Caption for top photo: A field of hemp in France. U.S. farmers are behind other countries when it comes to an understanding of hemp’s growing characteristics, but legalization of hemp for research aims to change that. Credit: Photo by Barbetorte
This interview was originally published in the 2015 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.