Feasibility of hemp as fiber crop studied


CORVALLIS - To help separate fact from myth about the production of hemp - touted by some as a miracle crop and by others as an evil, pernicious drug - an Oregon State University researcher has studied the feasibility of cultivating hemp as a fiber crop in the Pacific Northwest and concluded it may have some potential if it overcomes major obstacles.

Hemp, or cannabis sativa, can be manufactured into everything from fine cloth to auto parts, and concentrations of the psychoactive ingredient, THC, are too low in fiber hemp to produce a high.

The OSU study of scientific literature just published by the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station found that several conditions must be met before hemp could ever become a crop in this region.

First, it must become legal to grow hemp as a fiber crop; then it must be researched, developed and studied like any other potential new crop; and it must be able to compete with other fiber crops on the market, including wood fiber from the forest industry.

"Environmental awareness as well as decreasing availability and rising prices of local wood fiber resources have greatly increased commercial interest in agricultural production of alternative fiber sources in the Pacific Northwest," explained Daryl Ehrensing, researcher in the OSU Department of Crop and Soil Science and author of the study.

"While many people have proposed industrial hemp production as both an oil seed crop and a source of raw material for textiles, paper and composite wood products, the feasibility of hemp production has not yet been demonstrated in the Pacific Northwest," he said.

Major findings of the OSU study include:


  • Hemp is a summer annual crop that is well-adapted to warm growing conditions, an extended frost free season, highly productive agricultural soils and ample moisture through the growing season.


  • Hemp will almost certainly require supplemental irrigation to reliably maximize productivity throughout the region, placing hemp in direct competition with the highest value crops in the region.


  • Hemp production in western Europe is made economically feasible primarily by direct subsidies by the European Community. Since government subsidy is extremely unlikely in the United States, a thorough understanding of hemp production practices and costs is essential to determine the viability of production.


  • Total biomass yields will need to be substantially greater than those previously recorded in other countries for hemp to be economically feasible in the Pacific Northwest at current prices for raw hemp fiber and seed.


  • Improvements in hemp harvesting and processing equipment are still required to make hemp a viable crop.

"Since industrial hemp has not been grown in the Pacific Northwest in many decades, even on a research scale, the yield of modern hemp varieties under our conditions is unknown," stressed Ehrensing. "Until legislative restrictions are removed from hemp and production trials are completed, it is difficult to accurately assess the feasibility of hemp as a fiber crop in the region."

Hemp has been grown for many centuries for the strong fiber produced in its stems. Hemp seeds contain vegetable oil with edible and industrial uses. It is grown as a fiber crop in Europe and Asia, and regulated cultivation was recently approved in Canada.

In March, 1998, a group of American farmers, businesses and non-profit organizations filed a petition to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to redefine industrial hemp to exclude cannabis sativa with 1 percent or less THC, which is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, explained Andy Kerr, of the North American Industrial Hemp Council. They also petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish rules to certify farmers to grow hemp.

"The Feasibility of Industrial Hemp Production in the United States Pacific Northwest," publication SB 681, is available by mail at no charge, single copies only. Send your request to: Publication Orders, Extension and Station Communications, OSU, 422 Kerr Administration, Corvallis, Ore. 97331-2119.

The bulletin also is posted on the World Wide Web in the near future. Open eesc.orst.edu and select "Educational Materials," then "Agriculture." You'll find SB 681 under "Field Crops."