A Not-So-New Crop Returns

by Patrick Kirchhofer, Peoria County Farm Bureau

Both marijuana and hemp are members of the same plant family, but there are big differences.

The equation is very simple: farmers grow crops that the market demands. In Illinois, since the tractor replaced the horse, that has meant primarily corn and soybeans. Sure, some other crops are grown on a much smaller acreage—such as pumpkins (especially in the Peoria area), horseradish (near St. Louis), wheat, oats, hay and a variety of vegetables. Other crops, grown more on an experimental basis, include canola and pennycress. And then there’s this crop that seems to be cycling back around: hemp. 

At the very least, it has garnered the interest and curiosity of many people. That was evident at a January forum sponsored by the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, where a crowd of more than 200 packed into the Avanti’s Dome in Pekin to learn more about this re-energized industrial plant.

Hemp Vs. Marijuana
Why the sudden interest? A new, five-year federal Farm Bill was signed into law on December 20, 2018. It includes the typical: nutritional assistance programs, crop insurance guidelines and conservation programs—but it also includes a not-so-typical change in hemp policy. The legislation officially legalized industrial hemp production on a nationwide scale.

The last Farm Bill, passed in 2014, allowed pilot programs to study hemp, permitting the small-scale expansion of hemp cultivation for limited purposes. (Western Illinois University was involved in growing and studying hemp at two locations.) The more expansive 2018 Farm Bill allows cultivation of hemp on a broader basis, not just pilot programs to study market interest of hemp-derived products. 

Nearly 50 years ago, the U.S. President declared a “War on Drugs” and signed into law the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This legislation established a set of banned drugs and unintentionally outlawed hemp, one of the world’s oldest domesticated crops. This led to misconception and the demise of the hemp plant. In the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana was grouped with all types of cannabis and was made illegal to grow in the U.S. This classified hemp as a drug as well, even though it does not include the volume of THC that makes marijuana a psychoactive drug.

Both marijuana and hemp are members of the same plant family, but there are big differences. Hemp features skinny leaves and grows much taller. In an ideal soil and environment, it can grow more than 15 feet tall. Marijuana, on the other hand, features broader leaves, dense buds and a much shorter, bushy appearance.

The primary difference between the hemp and marijuana plants lies in the letters “CBD” and “THC.” CBD references Cannabidiol, a compound that does not appear to induce any psychoactive effects, but is being explored for other uses. THC refers to Tetrahydrocannabinol, the compound that does induce psychoactive effects. The marijuana plant contains between five and 40 percent THC, while the hemp plant contains a very low concentration of THC (0.03 percent or less).

A Wide Application
The hemp plant has a wide variety of uses. The stem can be used for hundreds of industrial products, such as paper, clothing, building materials and auto parts. Assuming that hemp could replace a sizeable portion of the current textile industry—which derives about two thirds of its resource inputs from petroleum—this could have a multi-billion-dollar impact. In addition, the seeds, flowers and leaves of the hemp plant can be processed into oil for uses that include cooking, skin lotions and soaps, biodiesel and environmentally-friendly paints, as well as to combat a wide array of medical problems. 

I talked recently to a Peoria farmer with a few years of farming under his belt. He said that in 1943 during World War II, the hemp industry was alive and well in Peoria County and the surrounding region. Area farmers were growing industrial hemp and delivering it to nearby processing plants to make rope and canvas for the war effort. 

In his recollections, the hemp plant grew over 10 feet tall, was cut by a corn binder pulled by horses, put into bundles while in the field, and loaded onto hayracks for delivery. He also recalls the disappointment of one young veteran returning from the war to see the farmers growing and processing the hemp. Just a few years before venturing off to war, he was cutting the hemp out of fencerows and fields because it was considered a weed. We’ll see where the hemp plant leads us this go-around. iBi

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