Throughout history, hemp has been an important global crop. In fact, the oldest-known use of hemp dates back to hemp cords in ancient China and Taiwan in 8000 BC and hemp cloth in ancient Mesopotamia. In fact, the widespread use of hemp in such close proximity to the birth of agriculture indicates that it could have been the first crop grown for purposes other than food production.
Hemp’s popularity was not confined to Asia. It spread across the globe, allowing other ancient civilizations to create durable clothing and rope, eventually proving to be the superior material for maritime use. Hemp replaced flax sails, as it could withstand saltwater.
Hemp made its way to North America with European settlers in the 1600s. Even in the earliest American settlements, hemp was grown to make rope, sails, and clothing. In fact, some colonies required farmers to grow the crop.
So what caused the fall of hemp farming in America? In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed by Congress, effectively kick-starting the downfall of the hemp industry.
The Marihuana Tax Act regulated the importation, cultivation, possession, and distribution of cannabis; and also required farmers to pay annual fees. Violators could be charged a fine of $2,000 or five years in prison.
Though the Marihuana Tax Act intended to disrupt only the use of marijuana as a recreational drug, hemp farmers found less profit and began to move away from growing.
In 1942, the USDA launched the “Hemp for Victory” program, encouraging farmers to grow hemp crops to support World War II. With a high demand for hemp rope, and hemp shipments from the Philippines cut off by the Japanese, the U.S. government needed to turn to its farmers for support, encouraging them to grow as much hemp as possible to support war efforts and suspending the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.
Between 1942 and 1945, American farmers across the Midwest and Southeast grew more than 400,000 acres of hemp, but, following the war, the United States government reinstated heavy taxes and hemp farming was again in decline.
With increasing prevalence of cheap, synthetic fibers, the demand for hemp was at an all-time low, and farmers turned to more lucrative crops.
By the 1970s, marijuana had been classified as a narcotic and even tighter laws were enforced. With the passage of the Controlled Substances Act, hemp was officially classified under the umbrella term “marijuana” and was therefore illegal to grow, possess, or sell. However, the Act failed to include hemp seed, fiber, or oil, and, in 2004, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the DEA had no right to regulate these products under the Controlled Substances Act.
In 2014, the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill allowed universities and agricultural departments to grow hemp for research programs, which led to increased interest in reestablishing the American hemp industry. The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act entirely, allowing American farmers to once again grow, process, and sell hemp commercially.
In April 2020, the Iowa Department of Agriculture began issuing permits to farmers who were interested in growing hemp, and, in the 2020 growing season alone, nearly 680 acres of hemp were planted in the state.
The hemp industry continues to grow in America as we learn more about hemp and its many uses, and we are overjoyed to be a part of the farmers who are contributing to the plant’s prevalence and perseverance.