Hemp has been called “the moral fiber” that the U.S. was literally built with, having a presence in many places including the U.S. Constitution and overalls. Now that legislation is unraveling layers of a complex prohibition, industrial hemp in America is popular again. It’s feeding our need for self-reliance in the food, fiber and fuel markets. If you want to try raising a stand of Cannabis sativa yourself, here’s what you need to think about.
Is It Legal?
If you live in the U.S., the simple answer is yes, according to the federal government. The complex answer is that more than half of the states still consider it illegal. An amendment to the 2014 Farm Bill allows states where it is legal to run agricultural pilot programs via higher-education institutions and state agriculture departments. It requires those entities to register sites growing hemp and the crops must maintain a concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, of less than 0.3 percent on dry weight.
You need to know whether or not you’ll get busted for growing, selling or possessing cannabis in your state. According to VoteHemp.com, these 26 states have “defined industrial hemp as distinct and removed barriers to its production”:
- New York
- North Dakota*
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
The website also links to state-specific legislation and advocacy groups. As of Sept. 2015, only the states with asterisks had planted research crops.
How Do You Get a Permit?
Just because it is legal to grow hemp doesn’t mean you can go ahead and plant seeds. Growers must obtain the required permits from the federal government and their state. The Drug Enforcement Agency places guidelines on its growth and can confiscate land if grown illegally. For example, in Kentucky, a grower must sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Kentucky Dept of Agriculture, which includes consent to allowing KDA to enter the site and conduct inspections. The state can decertify and deregister a site, and the producer must inform KDA of any discussions relating to the sale of the products.
Cross-pollination could be an issue if your hemp plot is near cannabis being grown for its THC content, legally or not. The wind could carry pollen over fences and roads to blend as nature intended, diversifying your crop’s DNA while perplexing the DEA. Intentionally growing the plant for THC near a hemp plot would not be a wise move, because the cross-pollination could end up diluting the marijuana’s potency.
Law enforcement has their own concerns about how to correctly identify industrial hemp versus a plant with a psychoactive THC level. Visual identification is not reliable and test results are not immediate, nor is there a standard protocol for selecting which plants to test and how often. Imagine the police trying to attempt something akin to random drug screening on thousands of acres. Who gets picked for testing, and how often? These are some of the decisions that have to be decided on a local level.
What Grows Where?
Choosing the right hemp variety for your location is essential. You might not have much choice over that if you’re receiving seed from a university that has specific research goals in mind. For example, Alice Melendez farms on her mother’s land at Mt. Folly Farms near Winchester, Ky. She’s not part of a producer group, as the majority of the pilot growers are, and she’s not expecting to clean and process her crop. As a single small farmer, she’s not big enough to negotiate, and she accepted a popular variety of hemp, Finola, originally from Scandinavia and imported from Canada. After harvesting, she will sell it back to a Atalo Holdings, a company closely tied to the seed’s breeder.
Melendez is a smart farmer, and she knows that the growth cycle of her plants is connected to day length, latitude and humidity. Finola might feel at home in Canada, but Kentucky is a different kind of place. Why is that important? The cannabis plant is triggered to flower and set seed when the days get shorter. If it flowers prematurely, the seed and fiber yield can be diminished. Finola is a short, fast-maturing variety, bred for its oil-rich seeds, so timing is important.
Melendez’s first year of hemp production has been a learning experience. Due to bureaucratic delays and unseasonably rainy weather, she got her seeds in the ground six weeks late. In the meantime, some vicious Johnsongrass took up residence in the loose soil while it waited. Now the Johnsongrass weeds are taller than the “weed.” She takes it in stride, planning what to do differently next year, and considers harvesting by hand with a group of volunteers she organizes for farm work parties, rather than experimenting with her combine for this odd-size crop.
Will It Work in the City?
You don’t need harvesting machinery and acres of land to grow hemp, but it helps. There aren’t many examples of urban-grown hemp (legally anyway), but if you’re willing to do the paperwork, there’s no reason not to try it. If you want to make money, however, a backyard probably won’t yield enough to bring in a sizable profit, at least not until processing becomes more mainstream.
Urban farms are typically small and most productive by planting in layers, diversifying and rotating crops. Hemp can be used simply as a cover crop, to help stabilize and enrich the soil. It can provide shade and structure for vining and lower-growing plants. Certain varieties bred for fibrous stalks can be grown tightly packed because they don’t necessarily need much space for flower heads to form.
Hemp has the potential to not only provide food, fiber and fuel, but also clean up polluted soils, a serious concern for urban farmers and their watersheds. A research project at the University of Louisville is focusing on hemp for phytoremediation (decontamination of soil using plants). Using old technology to solve our new-fangled problems—now there’s a new twist on innovation.
What Do You Want From Hemp?
Mike Lewis is a homegrown hemp hero. He runs Growing Warriors, an organization that empowers military veterans to grow food organically and is collaborating with other small-scale farmers to try on new clothes, in a sense. He was inspired by the Grow a London Garment project in England, where flax was planted in small city spaces and hand-processed by volunteers to make a garment. They also made a statement about the slow fashion movement, one that consciously considers sources and longevity of material. As an alternative to pesticide-laden cotton or foreign factory-made fabrics, hemp fibers can be combined with alpaca and sheep wool to make a unique and sustainably grown material.
Lewis and his colleagues are new pioneers, figuring out the hemp business as they go, because it hasn’t really been done in this country for nearly 70 years. His community of small farmers created their first hemp-fiber project, 2 acres that yielded fiber to create an American flag, dyed using colonial techniques. Could there be a more appropriate product for these warriors turned hemp farmers? You can watch a video about The Kentucky Cloth Project above.
Lewis’ main goal is to find markets for his veteran farmers and to participate in a socially and environmentally responsible system. He’s found hemp to a real conversation piece, especially when he takes the plant to events with him. Other organically grown crops just provoked yawns when Lewis would get on his soapbox, but hemp grabs your attention. It opens doors to conversations about sustainable and small family farms, energy and food independence, innovation, and of course, profitability. He poses the question on how does someone define profit.
“If you’re in it to make money, you may want to wait a few years until the market settles down,” he says. “If you’re in it to learn, to make yourself a better person and connect to the land, go for it.”
Final Suggestions and Resources
Whether you’re a serious producer or an adventurous gardener, hemp requires some forethought. If you want to pay homage to traditional agricultural wisdom, participate in the fossil-fuel-free movement, or contribute to modern research, growing hemp makes a statement. If you are ready to try hemp on, here are some useful tools to help you decide if it fits you:
- For a starting point to understanding hemp legislation, see Hemp As An Agricultural Commodity
- For growing specifics, such as pH and spacing needs, see the University of Kentucky’s “Industrial Hemp Production” fact sheet.
- For more information about the Kentucky Cloth Project and blending hemp for textiles, see Fibershed.
- To see what Alice Melendez does on her farm and in her community, visit Plowshares for Appalachia.
- For more information about Mike Lewis’ veteran farming network, see Growing Warriors.