History of Hemp Cultivation

Hemp Crop
Curtesy of IIHA Ireland
  1. History of Hemp Cultivation

WE have two projects about Hemp on the go in West Clare at the moment so maybe a little history about Hemp is in order.The projects are Hemp4Soil and the production of eco-friendly Bale Netting from Hemp.                                                                                                                                         As you will see it turns out to be an incredible crop and may well be one of the saviours of our agricultural community and the wider community in years to come.

Hemp is a plant that is often confused with marijuana and it is important that we get the facts and do not dismiss it as a drug. Both plants ,the Hemp and Marijuana, are from the same genus ( cannabis) and species. They may look and smell alike however they are chemically and structurally different. The major difference is in the level of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) .Hemp has 0.3%of THC and marijuana typically contains 5% to 20% THC. You cannot get HIGH on Hemp. 

Around 10,000 years ago in modern day Taiwan, Hemp became one of the first cultivated agricultural crops. It spread into Asia and the earliest know fabric was discovered in Iraq around 8,000 years ago.

It spread from Asia to the Mediterranean cultures of Europe early in the Christian  era and on into the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages. 

The growing of Hemp has existed in Ireland for over a 1,000 years . One of the oldest Hemp artefacts in Ireland is located in the Dublin City Archives and is from 850 years ago.

The Vikings who came to Ireland from the 7th Century were totally reliant on Hemp for their ships. The Hemp made the ropes , the sails and the caulking. The fibrous materials (caulk) were driven into the wedge-shaped seams between boards on the wooden ships. So without the Hemp they would never have arrived to ravage our lands.  

Hemp was tied to the Irish Linen industry from the late 1600s and was grown alongside flax. Flax is another plant the same genus as hemp from which linen is made. Hemp is 8 times stronger than linen. In both cases (hemp and flax) yarns are made. The yarns are graded A , the best quality , to D. The yarns can be single or plied so Hemp and Linen are basically interchangeable. Hemp has the longest lifespan of all the natural fibres.

 Both fibres benefit from washing as they get softer. Both are breathing fabrics , are natural insulators and have hollow fibres which means they are cool in summer and warm in winter. They are also are resistant to moths and other insects ,absorb dye stuffs readily and are biodegradable. However they do wrinkle easily. 

At its height spinning mills were located all over ireland but particularly in Ulster where the linen trade remained until recent decades.  

In the West of Ireland there was government encouragement to grow hemp especially in the drained bogs of the time. This was in the era of the Napoleonic wars from 1780 to 1815. The British Navy needed cordage for the ships rigging and canvas. The word canvas comes from the Greek ‘kannabis’ and the Latin “cannibis’ or Hemp. Hemp oil was also used instead of linseed oil as it was a better lubricant and penetrated better.

Another plant ‘ the Nettle’ is still widely known as Poor Man’s Hemp in the West of Ireland. It has very similar properties to Hemp and can be used to carry out most thinks Hemp can do !

In 1866 a pamphlet was produced by George Sigerson which argued that hemp had the ability to revolutionise the Irish Economy . Again during the height of empire building the British navy needed it for its ships for rope, sales and oils. 

The hemp was used by fishermen in the West of Ireland  to make rope and netting. It was also used to make clothes. It was also used by farmers in County Clare and its byproducts feed the animals and the seed had a high protein content. 

Hemp itself has often been linked to wars and rebellions. Renowned Irish rebel Robert Emmet was executed with a hemp rope in 1803. During the 1916 Rising hemp bales were used during the fighting and hemp seed was among the items looted by civilians. In the 1920’s during the War of Independence hemp was among the items sought from Russia. During WW2 Ireland saw hemp shortages just like other Western countries. 

King James the First in 1619 required every property holder in the Americas to grow 100 plants of Hemp for export which showed the need for the fibre. 

After the American War of Independence in 1784 the first American Flags were made of Hemp and it was a popular crop. It was used for twine, yarn, rope, cable, string, canvas and sacking (burlap). Also used to make shoes and as an alternative to wood pulp to make paper and was used to make the first dollar bills.Rather ominously became the cordage and rough bagging for the bailing of the cotton crop during the years of slavery in the USA.

In 1918 Wisconsin had 9 Hemp Mills and during the 2WW when America got cut off from its overseas supplies of Hemp a programme by the government began called “ Grow Hemp for Victory”. 

By 1970 during the “War on Drugs” its production was banned and it is only in recent years that the law has only been changed.In 2018 it was made legal again. The main reason may have been China which is the worlds largest producer and uses Hemp in a thousand different ways. 

 Hemp favours a deep humus soil but has been grown successfully on a wide range of soil types. Despite the mystery of hemp, it is like a regular crop. It is very traditional in terms of how you sow it, similar to drilling a brassica like kale and takes 100 t0 120 days to grow. And it grows surprisingly well in an Irish maritime climate. It is called weed because it grows like one — very quickly and easily. Soil preparation for hemp is similar to other spring crops, such as spring barley. Hemp is seeded in the spring on well-prepared soils. Hemp seeds require a firm seedbed and good soil contact to germinate well.

Its other uses are cellulose , edible protein , compost, animal bedding, fibre board as an alternative to fibreglass. Used to make bioplastics that are recyclable and biodegradable like hemcement, a composite material made of Hemp and lime binder and is used to be similar to concrete in a non load bearing application as well as been an insulator. 

Its seeds produce food flour,Hemp milk, cooking oil, beer and the dietary supplements polyunsaturated, omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids essential for human health. The body can produce biofuels , paints and varnishes. 

Who would not want a crop like that growing in West Clare !!!!!!!!!

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