What Is Hemp Fiber?

Hemp fibers are about to have their heyday. Hemp fibers, also called bast fibers, are found on the long stalk of the hemp plant. These fibers are valued for strength and durability and their antimicrobial and anti-mildew properties. Raw hemp fibers are not for medical or recreational cannabis use.  According to The North American Industrial Hemp Council (NAIHC),

“Although both plants are from the species cannabis, hemp contains virtually no THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in marijuana.”

Farmers around the country are just starting to experience the loosening of regulations on hemp. In North Dakota, which does not currently allow cannabis use or sale, four farmers were selected to grow hemp. Clarence Laub III was one farmer selected by North Dakota’s Department of Agriculture to grow industrial hemp in a pilot program. Mr. Laub commented that he had no time to be stressed or excited about making history because the seed arrived from Canada late and he had to hurry and plant it.

Why Was Hemp Outlawed?

Hemp is useful for a variety of purposes, justifying its release from legal limbo. The first identified use was in Asia thousands of years ago to make paper. In Russia two hundred years ago, paper production facilities used hemp fibers. Early in the 1900s, scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture found favorable qualities in hemp fibers and recommended using it make paper. That never happened on a widespread scale.

Humans have been using this plant and its raw materials for eons so why was it outlawed? According to Jack Herer, cannabis activist, in his book The Emperor Wears No Clothes, the paper industry – led by powerful men and lobbyists in Washington, D.C. shut down the hemp industry because it would compete with their business.

Others disagree. Author Steven Wishnia says,

“The belief that marijuana prohibition came about because of the secret machinations of an economic cabal ignores the pattern of every drug-law crusade in American history.”

He states that hemp/cannabis prohibition was fueled by racism, fear of crime, and culture wars.

Hemp’s Prospects

The culture wars and economic fears must have been significant in order to hold down such a useful plant. We can use hemp to make paper, fabric, plastics, biofuel, and food. The Global Hemp Fiber Industry 2016 Market Research report analyzes the current state of the hemp fiber industry. Countries that are currently producing the most hemp include the U.S., Japan, China, India, and European countries. They all seem to agree that hemp has promising prospects in several categories.

Building Material – Millions of people currently need affordable, sustainable housing. Hempcrete is a viable alternative to concrete as it is seven times stronger and half as heavy. Other building materials made from hemp fibers include insulation, paneling, and roofing. To build cars, hemp processed into a plastic is lighter than steel and much stronger. We can also make hemp plastic that is biodegradable and non-toxic.

Alternative Fuel – While alternative fuels haven’t caught on widely and even electric/hybrid motor vehicles aren’t very popular, hemp fiber fuel is poised to show what it can do. Biodiesel hemp fuel is made from the hemp plant and fuels conventional diesel engines without any needed modifications. Storage is the same as petroleum diesel fuel. Hemp fuel has been shown to release much less carbon into the atmosphere, potentially helping relieve global warming.

Woman With Hemp Plant

Medicine – For medical conditions, hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) oil has been shown in limited scientific studies to alleviate symptoms. Those people that live in states where cannabis is legal for medical and/or recreational use, should have a variety of CBD-rich products to choose from. For those that live in illegal states – take heart – the movement is on to make hemp-derived CBD oil exempt from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). In 2014, a provision in the 2014 Farm Bill makes hemp grown for research purposes exempt from the CSA.

With just these three categories, hemp has nothing left to prove. It’s better than some building materials, is a viable fuel for motor engines, and is good medicine. However, hemp is useful for many other practical purposes such as clothing and food. And with the emergence of 3D printing, it’s the perfect composite plastic for an enormous number of industrial applications where plastic is currently used.

How to Grow Hemp

Hemp seeds are available online from U.S. suppliers and companies abroad. You may be able to visit farmers to obtain seeds or cuttings or visit online forums to obtain seeds or baby plants. Under ideal conditions, your plants will grow very fast. The stalks look like bamboo and will grow 6 to 12 feet or more, depending on the variety. In the dense plantings typical of industrial settings, the bottom leaves will suffer from lack of sunlight and fall off. The home grower could space the seeds less densely to optimize production.

When harvesting, the bark on the stem contains the long, bast fibers. They feel like wood but are softer to the touch and more flexible. These fibers are used to make clothing and rope. The short, tougher fibers in the core of the stalk are called hurds or shives and are used for building materials and plastics.

Hemp Plants Hemp plants vary considerably in properties and some are better suited to certain applications. Some have more short fibers than long fibers, more or less CBD, and varying composition. Growers should define the intended purpose before choosing a hemp varietal.

Additionally, you can make choices in cultivars. The dioecious has male and female flower parts on separate plants. The monoecious is one plant with male and female flower parts. The female predominant is 85-90 percent female, thought to be better for producing grain.

Be aware of the laws in your area regarding hemp when selecting a variety. You may be asked to prove that your plants have only a certain amount of THC, which can fluctuate in certain growing conditions or environmental stressors. In Canada, farmers must plant hemp with less than 0.3 percent THC.

The stipulations, restrictions, and trouble are not deterring home and industrial hemp farmers worldwide. They cite hemp’s favorable qualities such as taking half the irrigation water than wheat does while providing four times the income. With multiple uses for hemp fibers, negligible THC, and the presence of CBD oil, hemp fibers are positioned to dominate multiple categories and markets.


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