Industrial hemp — a versatile, durable textile that once factored in the Massachusetts economy — might again become an economic driver through a locally grown effort to repeal its prohibition here.
Up until the “reefer madness” era that led to its federal outlawing in 1937, cloth from industrial hemp was woven into numerous textiles, including in Massachusetts mills. But amid fears associated with cannabis use, this nearly identical — but non-psychotropic — cousin was banished, even though hemp only has trace amounts of THC, the chemical that produces a marijuana high. Federal prohibitions against hemp have been relaxed recently to allow states to create pilot projects in growing hemp and developing markets for it. Consequently, there may be a future here in hemp farming, as well as in the production of hemp textiles and other products.
State Rep. Mary S. Keefe, D-Worcester, is among eight cosponsors of a bill that would enable college-affiliated pilot projects to grow hemp on local farms. The bill, whose prime sponsor is Rep. Chris Walsh, D-Framingham, has gone from the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee to the Ways & Means Committee to finalize language for a floor vote. Its proponents make clear that this has no connection with and is entirely coincidental to a coming referendum in the fall on legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
Ms. Keefe released a statement on Friday that "we should always be looking for new ways to support small farms and bring good jobs into Worcester and the Central Massachusetts region." She said the area's local colleges and universities would be good candidates for the required college-affiliated pilot programs that would work with farmers and others on the growth, cultivation and marketing potential for this new cash crop.
Hemp's applications are almost too numerous to list — from fibers that can be woven into clothing or rope or used to make paper, to seeds that can be eaten or turned into oil used in cosmetics and fuels, to compressed fibers that can be used as a biodegradable substitute for plastics or fiberglass or building supplies. Environmentally, it requires little or no fertilizer, herbicides or fungicides; replenishes soil so that it can be used in crop rotation; and is even said to be environmentally valuable in sequestering CO2.
A small clothing manufacturer on Cape Cod, Good Clothing Company, that recently expanded into Fall River is among those pushing for a resurrection in the hemp industry. TV personality and fashion consultant Tim Gunn, a former judge on the show “Project Runway,” was invited by Good Clothing owner Kathryn Hilderbrand to appear at a reception in Boston last Tuesday asking legislators to approve the hemp bill.
If the legislation is successful, it could help Good Clothing realize its goal of opening the first hemp mill in decades in Massachusetts in Fall River, which once was a national leader in producing cloth made of hemp. As many Massachusetts textile mills were shuttered in the past century, moving operations to southern states and overseas, the remnants of this once strong industry have been torn down, or converted to other uses or sit vacant.
There’s no guarantee that hemp will be economically viable this time around. The pilot projects will help determine if it can be grown here in a cost-effective way, despite it once being so critical that Colonial era laws here encouraged its cultivation. Farmers in Canada reportedly bring in about $800 in profit per acre for the low maintenance plant. How that might translate to Massachusetts conditions, agricultural approaches and marketing know-how would need to be determined.
Nearly 80 years ago, federal legislation killed the industry. The state now has the opportunity to explore its revival in old and new forms. It's certainly worth approving legislation enabling these college-affiliated pilot projects to explore these new, for us, markets and industries.