Kentucky and industrial hemp do go back a long way. Since hemp’s first recorded planting near Danville in 1775 to its resurgence during the Second World War, the crop has become a prominent feature in the political, social and economic life. The early settlers brought in hemp for textile production. For them, hemp – along with wool and flax – was the better alternative to cotton for fabric. In Kentucky, cotton did not grow well.
The soil of northern and central Kentucky, as well as the climate made the location an ideal home for hemp growing. Counties producing the largest haul of hemp were located in the Bluegrass Region.
Hemp and Slavery
It is no coincidence that counties in the Bluegrass Region were home to the state’s largest slave population. Like cotton and tobacco, hemp was a labor-intensive crop. Although it did not need year-round attention like tobacco and cotton, the planting, harvesting and processing phases of hemp required a significant amount of manual input. The most labor-intensive periods were during the hackling of fibers and breaking the stalks.
Without hemp, slavery in Kentucky may not have flourished as much. This is because other agricultural products grown in the state did not as well as hemp. To a large extent, slaves were required in hemp farms and factories.
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Kentuckians also went into converting hemp into marketable products. Hemp was mostly used in the rope making and for weaving bagging for bundling cotton bales. While rope-walks made thousands of yards of hemp cords, factory looms in Frankfort, Danville and Lexington manufactured bagging. Another huge customer for the Kentucky hemp was the United States Navy, which used hemp ropes for rigging ships.
Production Decline of Industrial Hemp
During the Civil War, hemp production declined. Although some of it was still grown in Kentucky, the deep South’s cotton market – hemp’s market for bagging and cordage – was cut off. Instead, farmers were forced to look into other more marketable alternative crops. After the war, the industrial hemp market swayed with the cotton market. Abolishing slavery made finding labor for hemp production difficult. But there was a strong resurgence during the Spanish-American War, and once again in World War One and World War Two.
A Second Decline
In the 1930’s, hemp’s association with marijuana made farmers more reluctant to grow it. Bureaucratic red tape and the enforcement of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 regulated the hemp industry out of existence. And in the process, destroyed the huge money market that hemp was.
Although the demand for hemp fiber is still relatively low nowadays, there are new uses that are continually being discovered. For example, the energy crisis shone a bright light on the need for renewable crops like hemp as sources of alternative energy. Hemp as a source of building materials, animal bedding and fuel is now becoming a universally accepted norm.
Old uses are also being rediscovered. The benefits of using cellulose-rich hemp to make paper are rapidly gaining attention once again. The nutritional benefits of hemp seed are also manifesting themselves in many health care products and foods on supermarket shelves. However, until industrial hemp can once again thrive in a free market, it will not get a chance to succeed.