We all had that friend in college (heck, maybe "that friend" was even one of us). Hemp necklace. Hemp bracelet. A Grateful Dead T-shirt, even in the dead of winter. But he was a go-getter. He didn’t spend his weekends smoking grass in the quad. Instead, he ran a booth that extolled the virtues of hemp—a miracle plant that, if you squinted past the THC, could form sustainable textiles, fuels, plastics, building materials, and even food.
I, for one, always felt a bit like a jerk for doubting that friend, for suspecting that he had a hemp bias based upon a penchant for marijuana. But according to Modern Farmer, none of us should feel bad because hemp, for all of its potential uses, is basically a jack of all trades and master of none. Plus? It’s harder to cultivate than you might think. From the site:
The one big benefit of hemp? Its environmental footprint is relatively small. It requires few pesticides and no herbicides. It’s an excellent rotation crop, often used to suppress weeds and loosen soil before the planting of winter cereals. On the other hand, it requires a relatively large amount of water, and its need for deep, humus-rich, nutrient-dense soil limits growing locales.
And hemp cultivation is highly labor-intensive. Loflin, the Colorado farmer, took to social media to recruit 45 people to help him harvest his crop by hand over a weekend. "Use of a mechanical combine," the Denver Post reported, "would have harmed the plants’ stalks." That’s one reason prices are so high—about six times the cost of wood pulp. Hemp is an annual crop, which means it must be stored in order to be processed throughout the year, further adding to the cost of using it—and to the incentive for using something else.
No doubt, hemp may have been a miracle material in past centuries when we didn't have stronger materials to make rope. But it’s a pain to quench and harvest at scale, and with the last several decades of government subsidies driving the development of industrial crops, corn and soybeans have become miracle materials, too. (Though, no doubt, at the expense of our personal and environmental health.)