Hemp was one of the earliest crops cultivated in human society. Grown for food, oil, and fiber, hemp was a staple in America until just a few decades ago. Recently, with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized the growing of hemp, it has seen a resurgence in the lives of Americans. More people are discovering the possible benefits of hemp and CBD every day. Here’s a brief history of hemp farming in the United States and beyond.
Hemp Was One of the First Agricultural Crops
The oldest historical evidence of hemp was found back in 8000 BCE in Asian regions that are now China and Taiwan. Archaeologists unearthed an old Neolithic site and found pottery made with hemp cord. They also unearthed a rod-shaped stone beater, which is believed to have been used to pound hemp. In those ancient times, archaeologists believe hemp was used to make fishing nets, rope, and clothes. The Chinese are also thought to be the first to create hemp paper. Finding hemp use and cultivation twelve thousand-years ago places hemp as one of the first human agriculture crops. Though human history spans 250,000 years, agriculture is only about 10,000 years old. Agriculture was one of the keys to modern civilization, and these findings place hemp right at the forefront.
From its inception in Asia, hemp continued to spread across ancient civilizations. Archaeologists have found evidence of hemp material across Asia, Europe, Africa, and even South America. Hemp was even mentioned in ancient Hindu text, referred to as a “sacred grass.” In Persia, hemp was referred to as the “King of Seeds” and used for many different types of food. The Romans used hemp for rope and cloth, especially in times of war when hemp’s durability proved useful.
During the Middle Ages, Italian shipping vessels used hemp on the frame, sails, rope, and cordage. Hemp sails were superior to the old sails made of flax that would rot after three months of exposure to the ocean’s salt water. In 1533, King Henry VIII made an official decree that all landowners must set aside a quarter of an acre of land to grow and cultivate hemp for every sixty acres of land used to grow another crop. This decree would ensure that enough of the necessary fiber was produced for use on ships and other purposes. Hemp was even considered a legal tender that could be used to pay taxes.
Colonial America Mandated the Growth of Hemp
European settlers first introduced hemp to North America. From there, it was used for a variety of different products, including paper, lamp fuel, and rope. The first recorded mention of hemp was found in 1632. The Virginia Assembly actually mandated, “that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.” Massachusetts and Connecticut passed similar guidelines to encourage local farmers to grow and cultivate the plant.
According to diary entries, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations. Additionally, Benjamin Franklin began one of America’s first paper mills using hemp to make paper. In fact, a few historians believe Thomas Jefferson penned the draft of the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. However, other historians dispute this fact, claiming that the paper was actually Dutch in origin, which indicates it was made with flax or linen.
Production of Hemp Grew Throughout the 19th Century
America continued to cultivate hemp through the 19th century. In 1830, Robert McCormick patented a device for breaking hemp and flax, which he called a “hemp-break,” that helped boost production of the substance. In 1831, he created a device that would become known as the reaper, which he gave to his son Cyrus as a gift and Cyrus later patented after making some modifications to the design. Cyrus McCormick, during some periods in partnership with his brothers, continued to create labor-saving hemp harvesting tools through the 19th and early 20th centuries through various business entities that eventually became International Harvester Inc. and Case IH Corporation.
Kentucky, the “bluegrass region,” became a hotbed for growing and producing hemp throughout this period. The state remained the nation’s leading producer of the hemp seed until hemp’s eventual decline as a crop in the 20th century. During this time, hemp was used to construct vessels, food, caulking, and countless other products.
The hemp industry was flourishing until Congress passed the “Tariff of 1828,” also called the “Tariff of Abominations” in 1828. This bill was intended to protect the industries in the Northern states, which were being undercut by imported goods from Britain. However, the bill called for iron, wool, cotton, and hemp to be heavily taxed, which caused in unrest for the bustling hemp industry. John C. Calhoun, who was Vice President at the time of this tariff, opposed this bill and urged nullification to restore the textile industry. In 1832, the bill was finally nullified, and the hemp industry was able to be restored. However, it was never to be quite as flourishing as it was before the Tariff of Abominations was passed. To further boost the sales of hemp, Congress passed a law that required the Navy to purchase the hemp needed for their vessels from domestic farmers in 1841.
After the Civil War, industrious entrepreneurs helped the production and sale of hemp with a few new inventions. G.F. Schaffer of New York patented the Hemp Dresser in 1861 to improve efficiency of harvesting and manufacturing. The following year, G. Sanford and J.E. Mallory, also of New York, patented ten improvement for breaking, cleaning, and dressing hemp.
U.S. Began Heavily Taxing Hemp in the Early 20th Century
In February 1938, Popular Mechanics published an article calling domestically grown hemp a “billion dollar crop.” This was never to be the case, however. This article was written in the spring of 1937, before the decisive Marihuana Tax Act that all but halted all production of hemp.
In the 1930s, hemp was unfortunately roped into the term marijuana and experienced a smear campaign that led to its ultimate demise. William Hearst was the owner of one of the largest newspaper outlets and an acreage of trees. It’s believed that Hearst feared the cultivation of hemp because it was more efficient than wood-derived paper. Hearst began to publish anti-cannabis “yellow journalism” propaganda to deter the public from the plant and demonize the entire industry. Hearst even popularized the term “marihuana” and roped in hemp under its umbrella.
Harry J. Anslinger, who ran the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, shared Hearst’s anti-marijuana sentiments and helped further demonize the plant. He eventually helped write and enact the Marihuana Tax Act, which was passed in Congress on August 2, 1937. While the Act didn’t outright criminalize cannabis, it did make producing and distributing cannabis (which also included hemp) much more difficult. It turned over the regulation of licensing hemp production to the Department of Revenue and added a $100 transfer tax on sales. This transfer tax was so outrageously high that it significantly hindered domestic farmers.
Around the same time, synthetic fibers were beginning to emerge on the market. Low-quality fibers were cheaply imported from overseas, and manufacturers turned to these cheaper materials over the more expensive hemp to keep production costs down. Therefore, the demand for high-quality hemp quickly declined.
Hemp Saw an Increase in Demand During WWII
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, America’s hemp cultivation industry showed a brief resurgence. With the fiber of the plant needed to create ropes for the U.S. Navy, Japan cut off supplies of hemp from the Philippines. This action forced the U.S. to turn to domestic farmers for hemp production.
To help spur on the production of hemp, the federal government launched a pro-hemp campaign. The film “Hemp for Victory” was released to encourage American farmers to grow as much hemp as possible to help with the war effort.
The federal government also distributed 400,000 pounds of seeds and lifted the Marihuana Tax Act for the duration of the war. A private company called War Hemp Industries helped subsidize hemp cultivation and developed processing plants to produce products, such as rope, cloth, and cords, from the hemp cultivated by farmers.
The call to produce hemp was largely successful. Between 1942 and 1946, American farmers produced 42,000 tons of hemp fiber each year. Unfortunately, hemp’s comeback did not last long. After winning the war, American demand for domestic hemp fiber waned. Many farmers faced canceled hemp contracts and switched to growing more lucrative crops.
War on Drugs Led to Ban on Hemp Farming
After the war, the U.S. government quickly returned to its original stance on hemp. The Marihuana Tax Act was reinstated, and the hemp industry continued to decline. Cheaper, synthetic materials, such as plastic and nylon, were becoming more plentiful. Fewer farmers were cultivating hemp, and the remaining few hemp processors declared bankruptcy. In fact, the last commercial hemp farm was planted in Wisconsin in 1957.
The final nail in the coffin was the “War on Drugs” initiated by Richard Nixon in 1970. The farming, cultivating, and sale of hemp was made illegal with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act. This Act included hemp under the umbrella of “cannabis,” and listed both as a Schedule 1 drug. Schedule 1 drugs are those that are considered the most dangerous with a very high risk for addiction and little evidence of benefits. Schedule 1 drugs include LSD, heroin, ecstasy, methaqualone, and peyote. In other words, the crop that helped to build America was grouped together with dangerous drugs, such as heroin and LSD. In 1973, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) which only cracked down further on the production and sale of marijuana.
Hemp Makes a Comeback in Recent Years
Hemp only recently became legal to grow and use in the United States under federal law. Interestingly, the 1970 Act excluded certain parts of hemp, including hemp seed, hemp fiber, and hemp seed oil, from regulation. In 2004, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the DEA did not have the authority to regulate those parts of hemp under the Controlled Substances Act. Hemp was allowed to be imported and those parts of the plant could be used for products, but domestic farmers could not grow it.
All that changed with the passage of two Farm Bills. The 2014 Farm Bill allowed universities and Departments of Agriculture to grow hemp for research programs, which helped spur research that contributed to restoring this crop to American life. Then, the 2018 Farm Bill, signed into law in December of 2018, radically changed the cultivation and processing of hemp in America. The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act altogether, allowing American farmers to grow, process, and sell hemp commercially. It also made the production of hemp products across the nation legal for any use, including the extraction of CBD oil.
The Farm Bill did not create a free system where hemp farmers could cultivate and sell hemp wherever and whenever they want. There are still many restrictions with which they must comply. First, hemp must not contain over 0.3 percent THC. Any cannabis plant that does contain over 0.3 percent THC is not considered industrial hemp under federal regulations. Additionally, each individual state shares power over hemp cultivation, with four states (Idaho, Mississippi, New Hampshire and South Dakota) banning hemp production within state borders. State Departments of Agriculture must devise a plan that is submitted to the USDA Secretary. The USDA then constructs a regulatory program in those states where hemp cultivators must apply for licenses and comply with the federal program. Additionally, the Farm Bill detailed specific actions that are considered violations of federal hemp law (such as producing hemp plants with high THC contents) and punishments for those violations.
The legalization of hemp brought an explosion of interest in this plant and products made from it, such as CBD oil. In 2019, farmers from 34 states licensed over 500,000 acres of hemp. Most of the hemp grown was turned into the wildly popular CBD oil. Users reporting positive benefits from taking the substance drove CBD sales to over $1 billion in 2019. Additionally, it shows no signs of slowing down. Market research shows that the CBD industry could reach $20 billion by 2024.
However, challenges still remain for the new hemp industry. Due to the restrictions placed on hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill, the Drug Enforcement Administration still regulates much of the industry. CBD is still awaiting regulation from the Food and Drug Administration. However, more consumers are interested in hemp than ever before. In fact, a Gallup poll in 2019 found that 14% of Americans use CBD products. With a bustling industry only a few years since legalization, the sky is the limit for this ancient, multipurpose crop.
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