Fiber Wars


The Extinction of Kentucky Hemp

The tragic element of this story is that as a result of the pariah status to which hemp was relegated in the US, Kentucky Hemp is now extinct. The germplasm produced in Dewey's breeding program and all that collected by the USDA is lost. The National Seed Storage Laboratory, located in Fort Collins, Colorado, is charged with the preservation of germplasm as a safeguard against national disaster, such as nuclear war. In the early 1960s, ten bags of hemp seed, the only known remnant of the Kentucky Hemp varieties, were transferred there from the USDA. A USDA Yearbook report noted that "Flax and hemp are no longer produced for fiber in this country, but seed stocks of the best varieties that have been developed by research agencies are maintained."178 Fortunately for flax, a responsible effort was made to preserve its germplasm. Sadly, the hemp remnant was neglected. At the request of the author, NSSL searched and found these bags of hempseed. Apparently, they were never logged in as accessions of the lab. Consequently, they were not properly preserved. The bags are only labeled with numbers whose import was not recorded, so we cannot know which varieties they might have been. The seed was last grown, as far as can be determined, in 1948. It's dead!179

This completes the extinction of Kentucky Hemp and its derivatives. Nor is this germplasm found in the collections of other nations, as far as I have been able to determine.180 DeMeijer and van Soest, writing of the Cannabis germplasm collection in Holland, say, "Lacking in the collection are fiber cultivars grouped under the name Kentucky Hemp which were cultivated until the nineteen-fifties in the USA....It is doubtful whether viable germplasm of these cultivars still exists."181 All that remains of this genetic resource is the feral hemp which our National Guard is seeking with helicopters (to the chagrin of at least one Wisconsin dairy farmer).

In 1929 three selected varieties of hemp-Michigan Early, Chinamington and Simple Leaf-were grown in comparison with unselected common Kentucky seed near Juneau, Wis. Each of the varieties had been developed by 10 years or more of selection from the progeny of individual plants. The yields of fiber per acre were as follows: Simple Leaf, 360 pounds; Michigan Early, 694 pounds; Chinamington, 1054 pounds; common Kentucky, 680 pounds.182

These and the other varieties, Ferramington, Kymington, and Minnesota 8 among them, the entire lineage of Kentucky Hemp, our unique American hemp, are lost, their only survivors reduced to ditchweed. When Mr. Rens closed his doors in 1958, the government required that the hemp seed remaining in his possession be sterilized to kill it before it could be sold to birdseed suppliers.

Today, a great deal of attention is given to the loss of germplasm in tropical rainforests. It is in the context of that concern for global genetic resources that the loss of Kentucky Hemp should be framed. Our chemically-dependent, petroleum-addicted world is not sustainable. Inevitably, we will be forced to return to agricultural sources for our material and energy needs. The chemurgic vision will ultimately triumph and hemp will once again be called upon. But it is a long way from ditchweed to an agricultural crop.

The process of becoming weedy is a degenerative process from the point of view of plant breeding. Traits, such as fiber to hurd ratio, selected by the plant breeder through many generations are degraded as natural selection takes over emphasizing weedy characteristics. And hemp has an extremely malleable genetic makeup. The once valuable germplasm has been eroded in the feral state. We cannot know how "wild" this germplasm has become until it can be studied in an agricultural setting.

The loss of this germplasm is a setback to hemp in North America. The situation from a plant breeding point of view is roughly equivalent to turn-of-the-century. If hemp varieties adapted to North America are to be recreated, we will have to start over with the feral germplasm and plant introductions from China, Italy, and the former Soviet block. Since all domestic long-fiber spinning machinery was sold off for scrap metal, for this, too, we will have to look to the East.

Because of the legal definition of hemp as a drug plant, all hemp used in the US is imported. Nonetheless, trade is exploding for articles made with hemp. Beginning as a means to vote against prohibition when public discussion is suppressed, people are rediscovering the attributes of this durable natural fiber. And there is a great deal of interest in hemp's potential for building materials and, of course, paper. Hemp might also be grown for fiber on polluted lands as part of the remediation process.183 It has also been discussed as a potential source of biomass energy because of its high productivity.184 For its unique ability to suppress weeds alone, hemp has a place in the crop rotation, particularly in sustainable and organically-oriented farming systems.185

Growing public weariness with crime which always attends a prohibition may soon result in the rationalization of laws affecting hemp agriculture. Such changes are already underway in England, Canada, Australia and Germany. But the forces which found it necessary to force hemp into the "drug" classification still hold sway in the US. As awareness spreads, exposing the misinformation, grassroots efforts are moving to save the endangered Kentucky Hemp germplasm. Hopefully, it is not too late to recover Kentucky Hemp from the feral populations.

A 1975 study of feral cannabis growing in Kansas reported:

The major hallucinogen, delta-9-THC, occurred in all plant parts and ranged from 0.0001 to 0.06% of plant dry matter in the time study. Concentration was highest in flowers, leaves, petioles, stems, seeds, and roots, respectively. Plant parts containing the most delta-9THC also contained the most CBD, but delta-9-THC concentrations were ten times lower than CBD in all plant parts. Delta-9-THC and CBD in leaf tissue exhibited similar seasonal changes, except that delta-9-THC fluctuations came about two weeks later than those of CBD and had the lowest concentration (0.004%) in mid March and the highest (0.046%) in early July.186

The highest THC levels (0.046%) reported by this study for feral hemp is far below the 0.3% internationally accepted threshold for drug potential.

In 1992, a retired IBM employee with a hobby-farm in Kentucky was arrested for cultivating a Schedule One drug when 5000 cannabis plants were found in one of his fields. The charges were subsequently dropped (after $15,000 in legal fees) when lab results came back showing the plants had 0.05% THC. This case confirms that Kentucky Hemp never did have drug potential. The THC percentage of the feral hemp from Kansas and Kentucky are equivalent, 0.05%, an order of magnitude below the international standard. (The Kansas study had a high mean THC percentage of 0.5%, but the highest THC in the timeline experiment-- a subset of the larger survey of feral hemp in one Kansas county--was 0.05%.) There is not, nor was there ever, a need "to free hemp of the drug marihuana." The promulgation of this misinformation was a hoax perpetrated by an agency of government for reasons not yet fully revealed. All we know for sure is that during the 1930s, a branch of Henry Morgenthau's Treasury Department targeted a specific group of companies to entangle in government redtape. We know that hemp's association with marijuana was forced at that time because it was expedient. The bias in the enforcement of the Tax Act is exposed by the fact that the Wisconsin industry was spared while the Minnesota industries were overrun by FBN agents. We know the public was misled. What motivated this subterfuge remains a matter for speculation.*




Fiber Wars: Table of Contents

*P.S. The Low, Dishonest Decade, by the author, presents further explorations into these historical issues for interested parties.