This article first appeared in Popular Mechanics Magazinein February 1938.

New Billion-Dollar Crop

American farmers are promised a new cash crop with an annual valueof several hundred million dollars, all because a machine hasbeen invented which solves a problem more than 6,000 years old.It is hemp, a crop that will not compete with other American products.

Instead, it will displace imports of raw material and manufacturedproducts produced by underpaid coolie and peasant labor and itwill provide thousands of jobs for American workers throughoutthe land.

The machine which makes this possible is designed for removingthe fiber-bearing cortex from the rest of the stalk, making hempfiber available for use without a prohibitive amount of humanlabor.

Hemp is the standard fiber of the world. It has great tensilestrength and durability. It is used to produce more than 5,000textile products, ranging from rope to fine laces, and the woody"hurds" remaining after the fiber has been removed containmore than seventy-seven per cent cellulose, and can be used toproduce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane.

Machines now in service in Texas, Illinois, Minnesota and otherstates are producing fiber at a manufacturing cost of half a centa pound, and are finding a profitable market for the rest of thestalk.

Machine operators are making a good profit in competition withcoolie-produced foreign fiber while paying farmers fifteen dollarsa ton for hemp as it comes from the field.

From the farmers' point of view, hemp is an easy crop to growand will yield from three to six tons per acre on any land thatwill grow corn, wheat, or oats. It has a short growing season,so that it can be planted after other crops are in. It can begrown in any state of the union. The long roots penetrate andbreak the soil to leave it in perfect condition for the next year'scrop. The dense shock of leaves, eight to twelve feet above theground, chokes out weeds. Two successive crops are enough to reclaimland that has been abandoned because of Canadian thistles or quackgrass.

Under old methods, hemp was cut and allowed to lie in the fieldsfor weeks until it "retted" enough so the fibers couldbe pulled off by hand. Retting is simply rotting as a result ofdew, rain and bacterial action. Machines were developed to separatethe fibers mechanically after retting was complete, but the costwas high, the loss of fiber great, and the quality of fiber comparativelylow. With the new machine, known as a decorticator, hemp is cutwith a slightly modified grain binder. It is delivered to themachine where an automatic chain conveyor feeds it to the breakingarms at the rate of two or three tons per hour. The hurds arebroken into fine pieces which drop into the hopper, from wherethey are delivered by blower to a baler or to truck or freightcar for loose shipment. The fiber comes from the other end ofthe machine, ready for baling.

From this point on almost anything can happen. The raw fiber canbe used to produce strong twine or rope, woven into burlap, usedfor carpet warp or linoleum backing or it may be bleached andrefined, with resinous by-products of high commercial value. Itcan, in fact, be used to replace the foreign fibers which nowflood our markets.

Thousands of tons of hemp hurds are used every year by one largepowder company for the manufacture of dynamite and TNT. A largepaper company, which has been paying more than a million dollarsa year in duties on foreign-made cigarette papers, now is manufacturingthese papers from American hemp grown in Minnesota. A new factoryin Illinois is producing fine bond papers from hemp. The naturalmaterials in hemp make it an economical source of pulp for anygrade of paper manufactured, and the high percentage of alphacellulose promises an unlimited supply of raw material for thethousands of cellulose products our chemists have developed.

It is generally believed that all linen is produced from flax.Actually, the majority comes from hemp--authorities estimate thatmore than half of our imported linen fabrics are manufacturedfrom hemp fiber. Another misconception is that burlap is madefrom hemp.

Actually, its source is usually jute, and practically all of theburlap we use is woven by laborers in India who receive only fourcents a day. Binder twine is usually made from sisal which comesfrom Yucatan and East Africa.

All of these products, now imported, can be produced from home-grown hemp. Fish nets, bow strings, canvas, strong rope, overalls,damask tablecloths, fine linen garments, towels, bed linen andthousands of other everyday items can be grown on American farms.

Our imports of foreign fabrics and fibers average about $200,000,000per year; in raw fibers alone we imported over $50,000,000 inthe first six months of 1937. All of this income can be made availablefor Americans.

The paper industry offers even greater possibilities. As an industryit amounts to over $1,000,000,000 a year, and of that eighty percent is imported. But hemp will produce every grade of paper,and government figures estimate that 10,000 acres devoted to hempwill produce as much paper as 40,000 acres of average pulp land.

One obstacle in the onward march of hemp is the reluctance offarmers to try new crops. The problem is complicated by the needfor proper equipment a reasonable distance from the farm. Themachine cannot be operated profitably unless there is enough acreagewithin driving range and farmers cannot find a profitable marketunless there is machinery to handle the crop. Another obstacleis that the blossom of the female hemp plant contains marijuana,a narcotic, and it is impossible to grow hemp without producingthe blossom. Federal regulations now being drawn up require registrationof hemp growers, and tentative proposals for preventing narcoticproduction are rather stringent.

However, the connection of hemp as a crop and marijuana seemsto be exaggerated. The drug is usually produced from wild hempor locoweed which can be found on vacant lots and along railroadtracks in every state. If federal regulations can be drawn toprotect the public without preventing the legitimate culture ofhemp, this new crop can add immeasurably to American agricultureand industry.

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