Hemp has been undergoing a modern revival- and as hemp clothing, paper products, insulation, fabrics, oils and health products build steam and buzz nationwide, it can seem as if the power of this plant is a recent discovery, shocking the world with its diversity of uses.
But hemp has been with us for a long time. In many ways the story of hemp is intricately tied to the story of the emerging American nation. The Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. (Both of the two first drafts were on hemp paper actually), and the Declaration’s drafter, Thomas Jefferson was one of the crops biggest advocates.
Today, on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, we think it’s important to take a moment to recognize the intertwined history of our country with this miracle crop, and look at the role Jefferson played in bringing the power of hemp to a fledgling USA. As marijuana and hemp cultivation laws and regulations change, opening up markets in some states but remaining prohibitively restrictive in others, acknowledging how long this one plant has been a key character in our national narrative can be revolutionary.
Hemp production on an industrial scale far out dates the founding of the US, but in 17th century America farmers were ordered to grow hemp to provide material for rope, cloth and paper. Hemp was the preferred material for sails on navy vessels as it is naturally mold resistant. Throughout the colonial era, hemp was an acceptable form of payment for taxes. That’s right, for over 200 years, you could actually pay your taxes with hemp.
Jefferson himself is widely credited with returning from India with a superior hemp seed, and declaring that it would be the founding of the wealth of the nation (this story is somewhat of a myth, historians are not sure when or if this exactly happened, but the legend is ubiquitous).
We do know that Jefferson himself had extensive hemp fields, and was a key innovator in new growing and harvesting methods. After meditating on the extreme physical labor required to harvest industrial hemp, Jefferson designed an adaptation of the common threshing machine, to create what he dubbed “The Hemp Breaker”. His creation allowed for hemp to be harvested and processed at a commercial rate, and he wrote about the efficacy of this invention to many friends, in letters that are still archived in the Library of Congress.
A dedicated farmer at heart, Jefferson also collected his various writings on the best growing practices for hemp, and published them in Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book. Believe it or not, this book can still be found for sale today in some bookstores and online shops. His Farm Book outlines his basic hemp philosophy, laying out steps for the amateur hemp entrepreneur.
“hemp. plough the ground for it early in the fall & very deep, if possible
plough it again in Feb. before you sow it, which should be in March.
a hand can tend 3. acres of hemp a year.
tolerable ground yields 500. lb to the acre. you may generally count on
100 lb for every foot the hemp is over 4. f. high.
a hand will break 60. or 70. lb a day, and even to 150. lb.
if it is divided with an overseer, divide it as it is prepared.
seed. to make hemp seed, make hills of the form & size of cucumber hills, from 4. to
6. f. apart, in proportion to the strength of the ground. prick about a dozen
seeds into each hill, in different parts of it. when they come up thin them
to two. as soon as the male plants have shed their farina, cut them up that
the whole nourishment may go to the female plants. every plant thus
ended will yield a quart of seed. a bushel of good brown seed is enough for an acre.”
-Excerpt from Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book
Though he was one of hemp’s most outspoken heroes, Jefferson is not alone in being an early fan of the crop; George Washington was an avid farmer, and spoke passionately about the value of hemp in creating a base for the nation’s economy and security.
This love story continues through World War II, when the US government initiated a war time “Hemp for Victory” Campaign, aiming to increase nation wide supply for a variety of products beneficial for the war effort. The US Department of Agriculture even produced a short film in 1942 titled Hemp for Victory, outlining hemp as a necessary product to win the war.
In 1970, Hemp was banned as part of the Controlled Substances Act, and Thomas Jefferson’s vision for a “permanent hemp patch” on the best parcels of US soil was essentially squashed.
In the decades that followed, hemp products continued to be sold in the US, but all products were 100% imported, primarily from China and Canada, where industrial hemp production remained legal, creating a $500 million dollar annual industry with the US gaining essentially none of the profits.
As hemp fields begin to return to domestic soil, and states like Oregon and Colorado revive to the cultivation of Thomas Jefferson’s most prized gift to the nation (perhaps with the trusty Farm Book at their side), our nostalgic look at the hemp of the past can begin to have a hopeful glow. Our national love affair with hemp, it turns out, is more durable than it may seem.
It is a very hardy plant after all.