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The Life of the Hemp Farmer

The Life of the Hemp Farmer

One of the reasons that American farmers were unable to produce enough hemp to satisfy England and their own colonial needs was the scarcity and high cost of labor needed to harvest the crop.

Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson tried to raise hemp and both lost money doing so. Exasperated at England's demands that the colonies send her more hemp, Benjamin Franklin railed at Parliament's ignorance of the shortages of hemp in America.

The shortage of labor in the colonies was only one of the reasons farmers were unable to raise enough hemp to meet domestic demand for the crop. Another important reason was that hemp farming was not the easiest of jobs.

To prepare his land for hemp seed, the farmer usually had to plow his acreage at least three times, once in the fall, a second time in early spring, and a third time just before sowing. Immediately before the seeds were actually planted, the ground had to be carefully raked to break up any clumps so that the seeds would be distributed evenly. Seeds would be scattered throughout the field beginning in late March until the end of June.


plowing hemp land

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Generally, a farmer sowed his land at least two or three times just in case his seeds failed to germinate. About forty to fifty pounds of seed were sown per acre, and unless his seed was less than a year old, the farmer could not expect a good crop. Hemp seed had to be fresh and had to have been stored properly. Because older seeds were so unreliable, most farmers refused to have anything to do with suppliers they did not know personally. Although England regularly shipped hemp seed to the colonies, it was usually stored improperly and was often too old to be any good. It was in no small measure due to the shortage of good hemp seed from England that the colonists were unable to meet the demand for hemp at home and in the mother country.


About four to six days after sowing, the cannabis seed began to germinate. Some young plants grew at an astounding rate of five to six inches per day. Once the plants began to grow, the farmer could forget about them since no weed was a match for hemp and insects rarely attacked the plants. Thirteen to fifteen weeks later, the plants turned from green to a yellowish brown, the leaves began to droop and fall to the ground, and the flowers began to release their pollen, filling the air with clouds of hemp dust. The plants were finally ready to be harvested. Now came the back breaking toil dreaded by all hemp growers.

hemp stalks

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Initially, farmers pulled each plant out of the ground to get as much of the stem as possible. A farmer who uprooted his crop could clear about a quarter of an acre per day. If he used a knife and cut the stems above ground, he could dear about a half acre.


Once a number of stalks had been pulled or cut, the farmer tied them into sheaves about as thick as a man's leg. These bundles were then leaned against a fence or against each other and allowed to dry for two to three days. After drying came the rotting (or retting as it was usually called). Retting was done to weaken the glue-like resin that caused the outer fibers to stick to the stalk. The colonists used one of three retting methods, and the law stated that a dealer had to specify the way his hemp had been retted.

1. Water retting was considered to be the best method as far as the resulting quality of the hemp fiber was concerned. This involved immersing the hemp in a stream or pond for four to five days if done in summer, or thirty to forty days if done in winter. European hemp was usually water retted, but this was not generally done in America. Instead, Americans preferred winter retting. 

hemp water retting

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2. Winter retting was easier than water retting and it did not require a nearby water source. To winter-ret his hemp, the farmer simply threw the stalks on the ground when it began to get cold, leaving the rain, frost, and snow gradually to loosen the gum binding the fibers. Winter retting generally took about two to three months, and the result was a fiber measurably inferior in strength to water-retted hemp.


3. The third method was dew retting. This was to become the most common practice in Kentucky, but in colonies such as Virginia it was not used very much. Dew retting involved spreading the hemp plants on the ground at night to catch the dew and then tying them together in the morning so that they would remain wet for as long as possible. It was both time-consuming and produced a very inferior grade of hemp. Shipbuilders refused to buy dew-retted hemp, but cotton growers pre-ferred it because it was cheap. All they wanted it for was to bale their cotton shipments.

winter hemp retting

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After the hemp was retted by one of these three methods, it was allowed to dry once more. Then came the most tedious job of all, the "breaking" or freeing of the outer fibers from the stalk. During the Middle Ages, breaking was done by hand. But this was too slow a process and eventually "hand brakes" were introduced into the hemp industry. The simplest of these devices usually consisted of several ver-tical boards attached end to end with a movable arm hinged at one corner to the top board. The hemp was placed over the stationary edge and the top arm, which was sharpened somewhat, was brought down onto the hemp stalks with enough force to cut the fiber but not enough to go through the entire stalk. It was a task that required a great deal of skill as well as strength and stamina. Thomas Jefferson, one of Virginia's major hemp producers, gave up on hemp because of the back pain his slaves experienced in connection with the herculean breaking process:

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