Hemp on the Hill

Industrial hemp, the often misunderstood agricultural crop, is being harvested just outside the nation’s capital. But let’s get something straight first—hemp is not marijuana, and it does not contain those special side effects of marijuana.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about why hemp is being grown near Washington.

Several United States presidents grew hemp during their time, including George Washington, whose Mount Vernon estate is a quick drive from Washington. This week, the estate’s first hemp crop in centuries was harvested.

During his time at Mount Vernon, Washington grew and harvested hemp, which was “strictly the industrial cultivar needed for the production of rope, thread, canvas, sailing cloth, fishing nets and other industrial applications used on the plantation in the 18th century,” according to Mount Vernon’s website.

Washington’s main use for his cultivated crop was hemp rope to mend his fishing nets used in the Potomac River and hemp canvas on his boats.

According to Mount Vernon’s director of horticulture Dean Norton, in Washington’s written journals, he wrote about growing, harvesting and sewing hemp, as well as looking for the best hemp seeds. Every part of the industrial hemp plant was used. He also wrote about his interest in growing cotton due to the products that could be made from both crops.

During Washington’s time, hemp was grown on all five farms on the Mount Vernon campus—Mansion House, River Farm, Dogue Run Farm, Muddy Hole Farm and Union Farm.

Mount Vernon now works with the University of Virginia’s research program on hemp to enlighten visitors on George Washington’s farming ventures. The Mount Vernon website says the hemp harvested will be used in fiber-making demonstrations later in the year.

While hemp is currently illegal in the eyes of the federal government, it is grown for research purposes at universities and grown in several states through a tricky patchwork of laws.

Despite a recent pique in interest, the crop has been grown around the world long before we were even a country. In fact, historians say that hemp is the first agricultural crop planted by humans.

Currently, growing hemp without a federal permit is against the law, because it is on the list of controlled substances. Though hemp and marijuana are the same species, hemp does not have the psychoactive effects of marijuana.

As Washington knew well, industrial hemp can be used for a variety of products—from soap to biofuels to fiber.

Why is this an important issue today? Well, there’s a new farm bill on the horizon, and that may just include several provisions related to industrial hemp. With tobacco on the decline, Kentucky farmers are eager to once again cash in on growing hemp, and their champion is their own U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, who is also the powerful Senate Majority Leader.

The inclusion of hemp provisions in the farm bill will be something to keep an eye on as the House and Senate begin to reconcile the differences between their respective bills.

Editor’s note: Seymour Klierly writes Washington Whispers for the Journal from inside the Beltway.