Is There Hope in Hemp for Southern Agriculture?
Next Post

Press {{ keys }} + D to make this page bookmarked.


Is There Hope in Hemp for Southern Agriculture?


The rural areas of the States have fallen on hard times:

Starting in the 1980s, the nation’s basket cases were its urban areas—where a toxic stew of crime, drugs and suburban flight conspired to make large cities the slowest-growing and most troubled places.

Today, however, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows that by many key measures of socioeconomic well-being, those charts have flipped. In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas).

In fact, the total rural population—accounting for births, deaths and migration—has declined for five straight years.

—Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg,

Part of this is due to the disruption of the local farm economy.  Its focus has been mostly global rather than the traditional task of meeting the needs of a household and their neighbors:

The Farm Belt is hurtling toward a milestone: Soon there will be fewer than two million farms in America for the first time since pioneers moved westward after the Louisiana Purchase.

Across the heartland, a multiyear slump in prices for corn, wheat and other farm commodities brought on by a glut of grain world-wide is pushing many farmers further into debt. Some are shutting down, raising concerns that the next few years could bring the biggest wave of farm closures since the 1980s.

The U.S. share of the global grain market is less than half what it was in the 1970s. American farmers’ incomes will drop 9% in 2017, the Agriculture Department estimates, extending the steepest slide since the Great Depression into a fourth year.

—Jesse Newman and Patrick McGroarty,

But hope may be on the horizon.  The 2018 federal farm bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump contains a provision that takes hemp off the federal government’s list of harmful drugs for the first time since 1937 (when it was lumped in with marijuana in the Marijuana Tax Act,, since it contains little to no THC, and allows farmers to cultivate it freely, provided the State in which they live will likewise allow its being planted.

Already 39 States have some sort of hemp farming pilot program in place under a provision of the previous federal farm bill passed in 2014:

The versatility of hemp’s finished products is a source of great promise.  Not only could it allow more farmers to stay on the land, but its industrial applications could also bolster local, small-scale manufacturing for those who enjoy the mechanical arts. 

A wide range of products, including fibers, textiles, paper, construction and insulation materials, cosmetic products, animal feed, food, and beverages all may use hemp. The plant is estimated to be used in more than 25,000 products spanning nine markets: agriculture, textiles, recycling, automotive, furniture, food/nutrition/beverages, paper, construction materials and personal care.


The numbers being predicted in the hemp market help strengthen those promises:

The U.S. hemp market pulled in $820 million in sales in 2017, according to Hemp Business Journal. Because selling American hemp is still largely restricted, parts of the market are highly reliant on products imported from China and Canada. With growth projected at almost $2 billion by 2022, optimism that American growers can take a chunk of this market share is abundant.

—Alexander Nieves,

A balanced, farm-based, local economy could thus potentially be restored in many places.  The shaded areas of this map show where hemp can be grown in the lower 48 States:

Is There Hope in Hemp for Southern Agriculture?



Another advantage to hemp production is its environmental friendliness:

Hemp has incredible environmental benefits. It doesn’t pollute the air, water or soil. On the contrary, it builds soil composition. It is commonly grown organically, without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. And it is a natural weed suppressor due to fast growth of the canopy.

Unlike other crops, such as cotton, hemp doesn’t exhaust the soil. Hemp plants shed their leaves all through the growing season, adding rich organic matter to the topsoil and helping it retain moisture. Farmers have reported excellent hemp growth on land that had been cultivated steadily for nearly 100 years.

Where the ground permits, hemp’s strong roots descend for three feet or more. The roots anchor and protect the soil from runoff while building and preserving topsoil and subsoil structures similar to those of forests.

Because it is an extremely fast growing crop, hemp produces more fiber yield per acre than most other sources. Therefore, the amount of land needed for obtaining equal yields of fiber place hemp at an advantage over other fibers. Hemp can produce 250 percent more fiber than cotton and 600 percent more fiber than flax using the same amount of land.

—Ed Mass,

Southerners have long been acquainted with hemp.  Three prominent early Virginia planters are quoted here:

Col. William Byrd II called its cultivation “the Darling of all my Projects.” Robert Beverley predicted the plant “will be of the greatest consequence to us.” Thomas Jefferson directed that “an acre of the best ground” at his Poplar Forest estate be kept for a permanent patch of the stuff.

 . . .

Jefferson noted that hemp “is abundantly productive and will grow forever on the same spot,” unlike tobacco, which depletes soil nutrients.

—Ben Swenson,


The difficulty of processing hemp did not deter its cultivation. In the spring of 1729, Byrd sowed 90 bushels of hemp seed, optimistic that a bumper crop would result. That was enough for 36 acres or more. Most Tidewater planters grew a fraction of that, keeping much of their acreage in tobacco and other cash crops.

In Virginia's Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley regions, where tobacco did not grow so well, hemp became a staple. By the middle of the 18th century, Virginians had 12,000 acres cultivated in hemp, more than a quarter of the 45,000 acres they had in tobacco.

 . . . both the Virginia Assembly and the British Parliament provided bounties for growing hemp throughout the 17th and 18th centuries in an effort to cut reliance on foreign imports


Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas are the only Southern States (as of 2018) that have not begun hemp farming again in one form or another.  But it cannot be stressed enough:  Whatever promises hemp does hold for a revival of Southern agriculture, those benefits will be short-lived if hemp production becomes merely another means of competition with other farmers for global market share.  It must remain first and foremost a local crop grown for local needs, and only thereafter something for markets in the wider world.  John Médaille (relying on the work of a fellow named Sven Beckert) shows with cotton the woeful effects that follow when the opposite path is taken:

Cotton was grown for millennia as part of subsistence farming or for local industry. “Subsistence” has a bad odor for us, indicating ignorant peasants spending their lives in an endless routine of drudgery that provided a precarious existence at best. This is certainly true of subsistence wages, but on the farm, subsistence meant self-sufficiency, ownership of land (in greater or lesser degrees), and security. But above all, it meant family and community, for these were vital to the success of the farm and without them it could not exist at all. The subsistence farmer in warmer climes interplanted cotton among his food crops in sufficient quantity to meet his family’s needs, with some extra, perhaps, to sell to local manufacturers as a cash crop. In the winter months, the cotton would be cleaned, carded, spun into yarn and made into cloth to provide clothing for the family.

Each homestead was equipped with a variety of machines and tools to process the cotton into yarn and cloth and clothing. Home production was supplemented by commercial production which established local, regional, and long distance markets, mainly in finished cloth to furnish the needs of urban populations. But change was coming, which first manifested itself in technology. The first was the rather simple device of the “flying shuttle” in 1733, which doubled the productivity of weavers. This produced a bottleneck in the supply of yarn, since the spinsters at their wheels could not keep up with demand. This bottleneck was broken by the “spinning jenny” in 1760. This was further improved by connecting the jenny to water power in 1769. The spinning jenny was mainly used in homes, but the Arkwright water frame allowed for industrial production. At first, this was a boon to home weavers, as “putting-out” networks brought prosperity to the weavers, and commercial production quickly overtook home or local use. But this prosperity was short-lived, as weaving itself became automated.

The new loom created another bottleneck, namely in the supply of raw cotton. After all, cotton was the first major industry not dependent on local raw materials. Subsistence farmers were not willing to supply the need. But if cotton could easily be sold for cash, why not convert the whole farm to cotton and earn a whole bunch of cash? However, this would make the farmer and his family dependent on markets, and markets are notoriously volatile. Throughout the world, regardless of the culture, clime, or country, farmers and craftsmen preferred to provide for themselves whatever they could, and rely on their communities for what they could not. Cash was simply not a great requirement and certainly not the nexus of all economic and social relations, as it is for us. It had specific purposes, primarily for the payment of taxes and to buy the relatively few necessities that could not be produced by the family or the local community. In order for the empire of cotton to exist at all, this self-sufficiency had to be broken, and broken it was by a combination of commercial pressure and state violence. This is the period that Sven Beckert calls “War Capitalism.”

 . . .

The biggest obstacle to industrial capitalism was not capital, but labor. In order for any capitalism to be established, the tendency of farmers to self-sufficiency had to be overcome. As Beckert puts it,

For labor to be turned into a commodity, workers had to be “liberated” from the matrix of mutual obligations that had historically sustained them. They believed, at the same time, that land had to be “liberated” from noneconomic ties and made into a freely marketable commodity. This “liberation” rested ideologically on the naturalizing of certain historically specific ways of organizing production, and was thus enabled by economic, social, cultural, and even racial hierarchies it had helped to produce. Capitalists were the age’s true revolutionaries.

The liberation of labor did indeed begin with its separation from the land. The war on the cottages, loss of rights in the commons and the absorption of the cottage garden deprived home production of its economic base: family earnings and agriculture. The enclosure movement, which Karl Polanyi called “the revolution of the rich against the poor,” was the first step to creating an army of wage laborers. This tactic would be repeated in India, as the farmers lost grazing rights in the “wastelands,” lost their hunting rights, and the communal ownership of the farmlands was privatized.

But why wouldn’t the peasant or the yeoman want to be liberated from household production? It was, after all, a lot of drudgery; the whole winter might be spent in cleaning and carding the cotton, spinning it into yarn, weaving it into fabric, and making it into clothes. The spinster spent her days at the wheel, tedious work indeed. But on the other hand, it was a work in harmony with the home and in rhythm with the family. And most important, it was directed by her own will. She could stop to comfort a crying child, cook a meal, or just step outside for some air. And the product was hers, even if she had to sell it for taxes. Done well or badly, it was an expression of herself; it was a source not just of income, but of pride.

The spinster was liberated from her wheel, the weaver from his loom. But neither was liberated from the wheel and the loom; they were liberated only from the ownership of these things. Their lives would no longer be regulated by the rhythms of their own wheel in their own homes, but by somebody else’s wheel spinning to build somebody else’s home. And this home could never be large enough or grand enough; the wheels had to spin faster and faster to supply its needs.

In the process, Manchester was industrialized but England was deindustrialized. The process of industrialization is more accurately called industrial centralization, as all the wheels were sucked from all the homesteads and into the great city. And the positions of man and machine were reversed. No longer was the wheel the servant of the spinster, but the man the servo-mechanism of the wheel, just that bit of the process that could not, as yet, be automated. And each weaver that lost his loom, each spinster that lost her wheel, and each child that lost his home became a potential laborer for the new industry and a potential customer for its output.

 . . .

In sum, liberal capitalism had liberated labor from all that had traditionally been its own, from all connection with land, with family, with community, and even with the economy, save for the marginal connection provided by the wage and what it could purchase.


King Cotton (as a symbol of modern, aggressive, competitive agriculture in general and of a cash crop in particular) has ruled for a long while in the South, and his reign has brought both weal and woe to Dixie.  But perhaps Prince Hemp will be able to restore to her, and to the other region-nations within the American union, some of the blessings of communal agriculture they have lost in the race for global profits.

Author: Walt Garlington