Sunday, March 20, 2016
Nebraska resumes growing hemp this year
By Allen Jenkins
When modern humans arrived in the Yangtze River valley 40,000 years ago, they found a naturally occurring plant that provided high quality fiber, nutritious seeds and useful oils. As the hunter-gatherers began to develop agriculture and settle into permanent villages around 10,000 years ago, they found that this wild plant was easily cultivated. Hemp thus became one of the very first cultivated crops, and played an important role in human history for thousands of years.
Hemp provided the textiles for early clothing and the pulp for the first paper. Hemp sails, ropes and rigging pushed explorers and armadas around the globe — sometimes to glory and sometimes to disaster. Humans carried hemp around the world for its valuable seed and oil, its usefulness as a medicinal herb and its superior fiber for paper, textiles and rope. Hemp has few natural pests and crowds out most weeds. Sailors took hemp seed to plant in new lands, an insurance policy to ensure that they would have the raw material needed for rigging and sail repairs after storm or battle.
Hemp made the Age of Discovery possible, and directly impacted world history. Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia was prompted by his need to halt the flow of Russian hemp to the British navy. Napoleon knew he could not directly defeat the Royal Navy, but he also knew the British could not keep their ships at sea without Russian hemp. America’s Founding Fathers understood the importance of hemp to the navy. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew it. Government policy created incentives to grow hemp, and protected domestic production with tariffs on imported hemp.
In the 1800s, the hub of U.S. hemp production moved west to Kentucky. By 1900, hemp was grown in Nebraska near Fremont and Havelock, and Fremont had a processing plant. Unfortunately, 80 years ago the U.S. pushed hemp into the ditch with misguided and unjustified prohibition. Hemp lacks the psychoactive THC found in its cannabis cousin, marijuana. Government policy made no distinction between hemp and marijuana.
Today hemp is regaining its status as one of our most useful natural resources. Like corn and soybeans, hemp is now grown for an expanding menu of food and industrial purposes. Hemp seed, 45 percent oil, 35 percent protein and 10 percent carbohydrates and fiber, has a robust nutritional future. Hemp oil, traditionally used for industrial functions such as paint and varnish, is now finding major new markets in the cosmetic and food industries. The CBD compounds in hemp are now being evaluated for a host of medicinal uses. New uses for hemp fibers are being created in the drive for sustainable agriculture.
The 2014 Farm Bill allowed states to begin to cultivate hemp for research purposes. Nebraska is one of 28 states that enacted legislation allowing cultivation for research. The first legal hemp crops in Nebraska since the 1940s will be planted by university researchers this spring.
The 2016 Marienau Symposium at UNK on March 30 will provide two great opportunities for Nebraskans to learn more about hemp. A panel discussion from 11:15 a.m. to noon and an informal question and answer session from 2-3 p.m. will provide Nebraskans with an opportunity to hear from four people now engaged in hemp cultivation and the development of hemp-based products.
Both sessions are in the Nebraskan Student Union, and are free and are open to the public.
In 1938, “Popular Mechanics” magazine featured hemp, declaring it the “new $1 billion crop.” The next few years will see that prediction come true, and we will see the full return of our ancient partner.
Allan Jenkins is a professor of economics at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.