Pubdate: January, 1943
Source: The Illinois Agriculturist
Author: Larry Mowers '45
Page: 56

A Crop for the Duration is . . . HEMP IN ILLINOIS

Sixty thousand acres of hemp is Illinois' goal to help meet the needs of the armed forces. Hemp will be used principally for cordage but some for thread used in sewing brooms, brushes, and leather goods. In the past, the hemp has been grown in the Philippine and East India Islands, but now it will be grown in Kentucky, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois.

To process the Illinois hemp, the government is building 15 plants which will be located at Polo, Kirkland, Sandwich, Earlville, Galva, Ladd, Wyoming, Shabbona, Galesburg, Roseville, Minonk, Gibson City, Lexington, Woodstock, and the last place has not been located. The hemp producers must live within 10 miles of one of these plants - each of which will process 4,000 acres of hemp.

Besides living within this radius, a farmer who wishes to produce hemp must have land that will yield 60 bushels of corn as this indicates sufficient nitrogen, a lack of which is often the limiting factor in the growth of hemp. Hemp removes approximately the same amount of fertility from the soil as a good corn crop.

Although it is not a hard crop to produce, there are some steps which are very different from any encountered in the present cropping system. The responsibility of educating the farmers as to the proper methods of completing these steps has been shouldered largely by Dr. W.E. Domingo, who has been assisted by Dr. W.L. Burlison and Prof. J.C. Hackleman, all members of the staff at the University of Illinois. Dr. Domingo has attended numerous meetings throughout the state where he has shown colored slides and discussed the growing of hemp.

A farmer, to produce hemp, must see his local AAA chairman and sign a contract with the government. This requires him to plant at least 10 acres of hemp but preferably 10 per cent of his entire farm. He receives his seed from the government at the assigned price of $11 per bushel to the contractor.

He agrees to care properly for the hemp as he has been instructed. In return, the government will rent to the farmer two special machines with operators at the cost of five dollars per acre. The government also agrees to pay the farmers between $30 and $50 per ton for the hemp according to its quality. This is determined by the length and color of the fiber. The best is obtained from long branchless canes which have been properly retted.

Because a hemp field cannot be opened like an ordinary grain field, it is recommended that a space about a rod wide be left around it. An early cultivated crop such as potatoes, or corn used as a soiling crop may be planted in this space. After it is once started, hemp will keep down the weeds; however, to assure it a good start, the seedbed should be worked well to kill all the weeds possible before planting the hemp. Drilling the seed eliminates expense since it makes better use of the seed. An even thick stand causes the cane to be tall and without branches.

There are three steps in harvesting; cutting, retting, and binding. When the hemp has reached the bloom stage, it is cut by one of the special machines. It cuts the hemp and turns the butt ends one quarter turn, dropping the stems perpendicularly across the rows. Lying side by side, the canes are left in neat swaths.

The hemp is left to ret in the swath. This is a process done by the action of the rain, sun, and bacteria on the gums of the cortex. The retting causes the gums to decompose and makes separation of the fibers and pith very simple. During warm damp weather the canes become retted on one side within a week or 10 days, and then the canes must be turned over. This operation is done by hand but the Wisconsin farmers who have done it say they can turn three to four acres a day. The hemp is turned by running a bamboo pole under about four feet of the swath and turning it over so the butts point out instead of in. This exposes the other side to the elements.

The degree of retting is determined by taking the cane in both hands breaking about three inches of the cane. If the pith and cortex drop off leaving the fibers bare, it is properly retted. When this stage has been reached, the other machine is used to pick up the canes and bind them into bundles.

These bundles are shocked like corn and left standing until the moisture content has dropped to 12-15 per cent. After it is dried, the hemp is hauled to the mill and stacked there. The farmer is finally done with his work. When sold, the hemp will yield about two and one-fourth to two and three-fourths tons per acre.

Hemp is not a perishable crop and if properly stacked, can be kept for months. If it is baled and stored correctly, it will keep for years. Although hemp is a very favorable crop now - in all probability after the war, we will find that it will again lose some of its importance. We cannot compete with the cheap labor of the East, and the hand separated hemp is superior.