Hemp has always been a very important plant for humanity and used for a huge variety of purposes throughout history.
Besides its use as food and medicine, hemp also produces outstanding quality long fibre that has been used for centuries for clothing, sails and ropes among many other things.
The challenge with hemp fibre used to be the lengthy and heavy labor intensive process of retting.
Retting is basically a rotting process when moisture and microorganisms separate the fibre from the woody core of the hemp.
The retting process required the farmers to leave the crop out on the field for several weeks, and turn it from one side to another depending on the weather.
This process is not only lengthy and hard work, but it also depends heavily on the weather and therefore carries risk. Too much rain could damage the crop for example.
This process had stood in the way of ‘industrializing’ hemp… until the machine called decorticator was invented and fine tuned during the first third of the 1900’s.
This machine was improved and patented in the US by George Schlichten in 1919.
Schlichten, a German immigrant had spent nearly two decades and a huge sum of money to create a machine that can separate the fibre from the woody plant tissues.
By the time his creation was ready, he had a hard time finding investors in the post war economy and he passed away in 1923.
The decorticator resurfaced as a ‘new invention’ in the 30’s and that is when ‘The New Billion Dollar Crop’ article came out in the Popular Mechanics magazine.
The excitement of the article was based on the decorticator, that could finally streamline hemp fibre production.
As the title of the article suggests, the science and technology magazine predicted that hemp would become the new billion dollar crop due to this machine.
“American farmers are promised a new cash crop with an annual value of several hundred million dollars, all because a machine has been invented which solves a problem more than 6,000 years old. It is hemp, a crop that will not compete with other American products.”
“With the new machine, known as a decorticator, hemp is cut with a slightly modified grain binder. It is delivered to the machine where an automatic chain conveyor feeds it to the breaking arms at the rate of two or three tons per hour. The hurds are broken into fine pieces which drop into the hopper, from where they are delivered by blower to a baler or to truck or freight car for loose shipment. The fiber comes from the other end of the machine, ready for baling.”
The article explains that how great of an opportunity this is for farmers as it is a great crop to grow, but the extra work and risk with ratting made it less attractive.
“From the farmers’ point of view, hemp is an easy crop to grow and will yield from three to six tons per acre on any land that will grow corn, wheat, or oats. It has a short growing season, so that it can be planted after other crops are in. It can be grown in any state of the union. The long roots penetrate and break the soil to leave it in perfect condition for the next year’s crop. The dense shock of leaves, eight to twelve feet above the ground, chokes out weeds. Two successive crops are enough to reclaim land that has been abandoned because of Canadian thistles or quack grass.”
It made a lot of sense to grow hemp and the authors were very positive it would take off from there.
“From this point on almost anything can happen. The raw fiber can be used to produce strong twine or rope, woven into burlap, used for carpet warp or linoleum backing or it may be bleached and refined, with resinous by-products of high commercial value. It can, in fact, be used to replace the foreign fibers which now flood our markets.”
There were two obstacles listed in the article that stood in the way of hemp.
“One obstacle in the onward march of hemp is the reluctance of farmers to try new crops. The problem is complicated by the need for proper equipment a reasonable distance from the farm. The machine cannot be operated profitably unless there is enough acreage within driving range and farmers cannot find a profitable market unless there is machinery to handle the crop.
Another obstacle is that the blossom of the female hemp plant contains marijuana, a narcotic, and it is impossible to grow hemp without producing the blossom. Federal regulations now being drawn up require registration of hemp growers, and tentative proposals for preventing narcotic production are rather stringent.”
“However, the connection of hemp as a crop and marijuana seems to be exaggerated. The drug is usually produced from wild hemp or loco weed which can be found on vacant lots and along railroad tracks in every state. If federal regulations can be drawn to protect the public without preventing the legitimate culture of hemp, this new crop can add immeasurably to American agriculture and industry.”
The federal regulations mentioned in the article were the Marijuana Tax Act that President Roosevelt signed on 2 August 1937 and it ultimately ended up outlawing hemp production in the United States.
Now, as the prohibition is tumbling down after 80 years of anti cannabis propaganda with ridiculous campaigns such as the Reefer Madness misinformation campaign, we are re-discovering hemp and cannabis and hemp is becoming the billion dollar crop that the Popular Mechanics magazine predicted it to be in 1938.
Ironically, the Popular Mechanics magazine was acquired by Hearst in 1958. Hearst is the publishing company founded by William Randolph Hearst, who used his media empire to change public opinion about cannabis and demonize marijuana.