Hemp: A versatile crop with a long history in Missouri

Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Tools used during the 1800s to cut hemp and compress it into bales are displayed at the Mid-Missouri Antique Building on the Saline County Fairground. (Kelly Melies/Missouri Farms)

In the early part of the 19th century, hemp was used in Missouri because it was used for rope and bagging for the cotton bales, an important crop at the time, for easier storage and shipment. It was a different time then and hemp was being planted for commercial production, according to the book "Agriculture and Slavery in Missouri's Little Dixie" by R. Douglas Hurt.

And because of its versatility as a crop, there are those who wish to see hemp production rise again in Missouri.

Chris Nelson, who was organizing events for Hemp History Week, which was held June 2 - 8, said he would like to see more education available for people about industrial hemp.

"It never had a chance to be its own plant because it was associated with slavery," Nelson said. "And now we have a similar demonization because it's associated with marijuana and so it doesn't have a chance to be a plant under those conditions."

Nelson said this year was the first formal recognition of Hemp History Week, but it has been talked about since it was first introduced about five years ago. Events were planned for Thursday, June 5, in association with Marshall's 175th anniversary celebration, but due to weather conditions the celebration was moved to another location and the events celebrating hemp history were cancelled. Nelson hopes to be able to reschedule those activities at a future date.

"We would have had several 'choirs' up on the square interacting and talking with each other...talking about hemp and its history. Essentially looking at the future of where we could end up being," Nelson said.

Curators at the Mid-Missouri Antique Building at the Saline County Fairground are Clifford Thompson, Wayne Waddle and Harold Eddy. (Photo courtesy of Chris Nelson)

The history of hemp is long within central Missouri where Lafayette, Saline, Clay and Howard counties all played an important part in hemp production.

According to Hurt's book, by 1820 farmers were raising the crop in Lafayette County and then shipping it to Old Franklin. From there it would be shipped to available markets in St. Louis and New Orleans. Lexington became an important town for hemp production and soon, other towns followed, including Miami and Arrow Rock in Saline County. These towns and others in Clay and Howard counties became known as Missouri's Little Dixie.

Missouri was a big producer of hemp. By 1840, Missouri produced 12,500 tons. According to information from the Lexington Civil War Museum, Confederate Missouri State Guardsmen moved behind mobile breastworks made of hemp in order to defeat Union troops in Lexington during the Civil War.

It took a lot to raise and harvest hemp during the 1800s. Many harvesting tools can be seen at the Mid-Missouri Antique building on the Saline County Fairground. Harold Eddy, one of the curators of the building, explained how the hemp was harvested.

Making hempcrete for Hemp History Week. (Photo courtesy of Chris Nelson)

"They would start here at the stalk and go clear down to take off the branches," Eddy explained. "Then they would go through it with a scythe and cut it down onto the ground."

He said they would use a reaper and it would cut it off and rake the hemp stalks in piles.

"One guy would raise the stalks up and bundle it," he said. "After they would bundle it and tie it, they would shock it, kind of like a corn shock."

He said this was all done in late August and September. They would let it stand there and after October (Indian Summer) they would take it and lie it on the ground in piles.

"The dew...and the moisture would come up on it and it would rot the skin and the fiber in it," Eddy said.

After the heads of the stalk were cut off, they would move into a process called breaking hemp. After that process, they would put it in a device -- which was basically a baler -- and compress it, according to Eddy. He said most hemp presses were from the 1800s and more hand-made.

"It was almost a year-around job you could say. From the time they planted to harvest and then baling it," Eddy said. "It was kind of a territorial crop. It was here and down south. A lot of the other country didn't have it."

Eddy has been at the fairground for a long time and enjoys taking care of the pieces of equipment and tools.

"It's been a good many years. I'd say 40 to 50 years," he said. "I enjoy every bit of it."

Since the recent advocacy of industrial hemp, there has been time designated to celebrate and educate people about hemp known as Hemp History Week.

"It's a learning curve. In the last six months it's gotten traction. We need to educate people about industrial hemp," Nelson said. "We had a hemp symposium last December on the square. Anndrea Herman was the speaker. She is from Joplin and now is in Canada and president of the International Hemp Association. The Canadian government paid her to go to school to learn about hemp."

According to Nelson, there is a lot of money invested in corn in this area now and the move from corn to hemp is not going to happen anytime soon. But he hopes with more education and outreach, hemp could be a viable crop once again in Missouri.

"Many people don't know about hemp being on the backs of slaves," Nelson said. "In 1839, about 4,000 tons of hemp was harvested in the area of east North Street. The price for a ton of hemp was $70 up to $200 and a loaf of bread was a penny. Even if you get $70 per ton in today's dollars, it would be worth it."

He said you can get more energy out of a ton of hemp than a barrel of oil.

"A bale of hemp has more BTUs than a barrel of oil. You could probably harvest 100 bales of hemp out of one bale. One barrel of oil would maybe give you five barrels," he said.

There are also many products to get from hemp that would be beneficial to healthy living, environmentally sound and good for agriculture.

"There are many products that can be made from hemp and could be made right here in Saline County. They're all coming from Canada, China, Europe...everywhere but the U. S. because hemp is still being classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic," Nelson said. "You don't grow marijuana for industrial hemp properties. Marijuana has no seed and is generally indoors."

Nelson said there are many health benefits from hemp.

"Hemp oil and hemp seeds are really good for you," he said. "Hemp seeds have more Omega 3 and Omega 6 value than fish oil."

Products such as body care to plastics, paper, textiles and building materials can be processed from hemp.

Hemp can be grown organically and helps with weed control and soil building, which is a good thing for agriculture.

Nelson said the sources could be gathered to build schools using hempcrete. It could be where Saline County was the first to do it and it would help put the county on the map. Nelson explained it is a pretty simple process to make hempcrete. All that is needed is hemp, some lime mixed with portland cement and water.

With the benefits in which hemp can provide -- health, building materials and environmental, to name a few -- it seems that hemp could be a new super product. More information and education to reach people about this wonderful crop is what Nelson and others hope for so they could see what hemp actually is and what it could do.

"I don't want to do anything that would railroad the research that would get the seed to the farmers to use," he said. "That's essentially where it's at right now, with the farm bill that came through in February. You could have it for research purposes. Through research you could identify what it is and what we could use."

For more information, contact Chris at 660-886-8445. To learn more about Hemp History Week and its advocacy, visit www.HempHistoryWeek.com.

Hemp and Marijuana Myths

Myth -- United States law has always treated hemp and marijuana the same.

Reality -- The history of federal drug laws clearly shows that at one time the U. S. government understood and accepted the distinction between hemp and marijuana.

Myth -- Smoking industrial hemp gets a person high.

Reality -- The TC levels in industrial hemp are so low that no one could get high from smoking it. Moreover,, hemp contains a relatively high percentage of another cannabinoid, CBD, that actually blocks the marijuana high. Hemp, it turns out, is not only not marijuana; it could be called "anti-marijuana."

Myth -- Even though THC levels are low in hemp, the THC can be extracted and concentrated to produce to produce a powerful drug.

Reality -- Extracting THC from industrial hemp and further refining it to eliminate the preponderance of CBD would require such an expensive, hazardous, and time-consuming process that it is extremely unlikely anyone would ever attempt it, rather than simply obtaining high-THC marijuana instead.

Myth -- Legalizing hemp while continuing the prohibition on marijuana would burden local police forces.

Reality -- In countries where hemp is grown as an agricultural crop, the police have experienced no such burdens.

Myth -- Feral hemp must be eradicated because it can be sold as marijuana.

Reality -- Feral hemp, or ditchweed, is a remnant of the industrial hemp once grown on more than 400,000 acres by U. S. farmers. It contains extremely low levels of THC, as low as .05 percent. It has no drug value, but does offer important environmental benefits as a nesting habitat for birds. About 99 percent of the "marijuana" being eradicated by the federal government, at great public expense, is this harmless ditchweed.

Myth -- Industrial hemp fields would be used to hide marijuana plants.

Reality -- Industrial hemp is grown quite differently from marijuana. Moreover, it is harvested at a different time than marijuana. Finally, cross-pollination between hemp plants and marijuana plants would significantly reduce the potency of the marijuana plant.

Information collected from www.votehemp.com/myths_facts.html