Industrial hemp is in the spotlight again, and for good reason. The new Farm Bill that the Senate passed 87-13 in December now legalizes the commercial production of hemp, freeing it from the shackles of the Controlled Substance Act and severely curtailing the number of restrictions that have prevented farmers from raising it as a commodity crop like any other.
It’s not all open skies for hemp, though. Individual states still have the final word regarding regulation, especially now that cannabidiol, the non-psychotropic component of cannabis better known as CBD, is rearing its head in everything from gummies to dog treats.
“Even if the government comes up with a regulatory framework, states have to adopt it,” said Mike Lewis, director of Thirds Wave Farms in Kentucky and one of the first private citizens to legally farm hemp, through a partnership with Patagonia in 2016, since its prohibition in the 1970s. “We have a long ways to go and a lot of legislating that needs to be drafted. But we’re heading in the right direction. I think it’ll be two or three years before it’s extremely common.”
There are plenty of reasons environmentalists go gaga for hemp. It uses about half as much water per season as cotton, requires no pesticides or herbicides, and has uses that span an incredible gamut: paper, textiles, medicine, skin care, and even construction materials and fuel. Taking to just about any soil, it grows fast—very fast. Hemp grows from seed to harvest in 90 to 100 days, compared with 150 to 180 days for cotton.
As a textile, hemp plays well with other fibers, generously sharing its innate strength and durability. “Cotton is hemp’s best friend forever,” said Guy Carpenter, president of Bear Fiber, a North Carolina-based supply-chain-management firm that specializes in hemp. “Just an addition of 15 percent to 20 percent of hemp fiber into a yarn can make a fabric significantly stronger and more abrasion-resistant.” In denim, hemp absorbs indigo in a “more concentrated way,” he added.