1. It’s a booming industry. The American hemp industry generates sales of $450 million a year, according to the Hemp Industries Association—about a quarter from food and body care products and the rest from a wide array of goods, including clothing, auto and airplane parts, building materials and more. But since the cultivation of hemp is illegal in the United States under federal anti-drug laws, all hemp and hemp parts (fiber, oil, seed) used to make these products have to be imported.
2. It’s cannabis, but not the narcotic kind. Hemp is of the same plant species as marijuana, Cannabis sativa, but it is bred and cultivated quite differently. Cannabis bred for narcotic use is high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s main intoxicant, while in hemp THC content is far lower, not nearly enough to produce a high. Also, hemp can be grown densely since the fibrous stalk is the main harvest, while marijuana plants need room to spread out and grow buds, which contain the most THC.
3. It’s been with us a long time. Hemp was cultivated in China more than 4,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest domesticated crop plants. It originated in Asia, spread to Europe, and came to the U.S. with the first European settlers. Primarily a fiber crop, hemp also was used for food and medicine. Many of the earliest domesticates had multiple uses in human societies, and hemp is an excellent example. Over time and geography, hemp cultivars found separate, specialized uses for fiber production and medicinal purposes.
4. It was huge in Wisconsin. Farmers were growing hemp in Wisconsin before it was admitted as a state, but true hemp glory came during World War II, with high demand from the military for such hemp-based products as rope and twine (eventually some 146,000 acres of hemp were harvested nationwide). The biggest growing areas were in
Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Dodge and Racine counties. An article in the Madison-based Capital Times in 1941 noted that Wisconsin produced more than 75 percent of the hemp raised commercially in the United States, and Wisconsin was referenced several times in the 1942 government-produced film “Hemp for Victory.” At one point Waupun-based grower and mill owner Matt Rens was known as “America’s Hemp King.” But after the war the crop lost much of its value, especially with the rise of synthetic fiber, and in 1970 federal drug law classified plants with any THC as an illegal substance.
5. There’s a growing push to change that. The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013, introduced in both the House and Senate, would amend federal drug law to legalize growing cannabis that contains less than 0.3 percent THC. It enjoys the support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), among others.
Irwin Goldman is a professor and chair of the CALS’ Department of Horticulture. He is the nation’s only publicly supported beet breeder.