Politics spark interest in Iowa's farming history

Thursday, June 14, 2012
Industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa), pictured here, is one of some 2,000 plants in the species and is considered a low-grade tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) strain of the plant, useful for its fiber, seeds and oils. (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

The agriculture of today, propelled with fast-changing technology and perceived world needs, often has a role in the nation's political picture.

Among the most recent examples comes as members of the U.S. Congress attempt to find agreement on the new Farm Bill.

Such efforts at times uncover long-forgotten history of agriculture in Iowa.

One example is an amendment to the new Farm Bill offered by Oregon's Democratic Senator Ron Wyden that is reminiscent of the short-term production in Iowa of industrial hemp.

Wyden's amendment would exclude industrial hemp production from the definition of marijuana, allowing for state permitting for hemp crops across the nation.

A similar proposal was put forth earlier by Congressman Ron Paul in the U.S. House.

Wyden's amendment would ease a federal ban on the production, which was established in 1937, banning production of marijuana.

Wyden suggested the amendment would aid the improvement of the economy in his home state and benefit agriculture producers.

Pro-hemp legislation was passed earlier by 17 states, with an additional eight -- Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia -- removing the production restriction.

References of Iowa's role in the nation's rather short-lived hemp production indicate that it was part of a national "Hemp for Victory" effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the early 1940s during World War II.

A USDA 1943 Yearbook of Agriculture details how Iowa farmers "were asked to grow" 60,000 acres of the hemp needed to replace imports of manila fiber "cut off by the war." The fibers were necessary for manufacturing rope.

The acreage assignment was later lowered to 44,000 due to a seed shortage.

The yearbook report also indicated that "educational work" and sign-up on a "cooperative basis" with county USDA War Boards and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) proceeded faster in Iowa than in any other area.

Some 4,000 farmers participated in the program, the yearbook added. The majority of these producers had no previous experience with the crop except "as a weed in their fence lines" on their farms, it stated.

An estimated 6,500 people signed up to participate in educational meetings and training sessions to prepare for the new war time crop production.

Iowa State University's Extension Service reinforced the training effort with a special production informational brochure -- "Hemp: A War Crop For Iowa."

The brochure was produced by the late R.K. Bliss, director of the Iowa Agricultural Extension Service on January 1, 1942.

The brochure cited hemp production as "a war necessity" and an "urgent need" for "large quantities" of the crop for the manufacture of rope and "other types of cordage" for the Army, Navy, Merchant Marines and essential civilian usages.

The hemp's "extremely strong" fiber made the crop the "best know substitute" for rope production, the narrative said.

Industrial hemp, a Cannabis sativa species, is not usable as a psychoactive drug, according to modern sources. It contains only "small to negligible" amount of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the major psychoactive component of marijuana, according to the Hemp Industries Association (HIA).

The THC level is less than 1 percent, as compared to a level of 10 percent for marijuana, according to the HIA.

In addition to Iowa, states participating in the war effort were Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.

The hemp crops subsequently prompted new, easily accessible hemp processing plants or "mills" necessary to make the production profitable.

The hemp processing plants, including about a dozen in Iowa, were federally financed and operated through agencies of the Commodity Credit Bureau with the State War Board assisting in site selection, according to Voice for Hemp advocacy data.

Hemp harvesting equipment was also to be provided by the government, according to the Hemp for War Extension brochure.

None of these plants were built in Plymouth County, but historical references indicate Algona, Humboldt, Eagle Grove and Grundy Center were among the mill sites.

The price paid to producers for hemp was "guaranteed by the government" at the time, according to a 1966 Des Moines Register story.

The per acre return from the hemp was $100 to $150 as compared to a $30 to $40 per acre return on corn at the time, according to the Register article and Voice for Hemp advocacy data.

The Grundy Center plant was the first of the Iowa plants to meet its hemp production "quota" of 4,000 acres of hemp annually, with 520 farmers signed up for the program. Initial employees of the plant, according to Grundy Center Library resources, were Italian prisoners of war brought in and paid 80 cents a day "in scrip" to be used at a military canteen.

The last of the hemp would be processed at the Grundy Center plant in December 1945. The facility became a corn and hay drying operation and later the site of several businesses. This was consistent with the end of operations at plants elsewhere in the state.

Iowa's somewhat short tenure as a hemp-producing state had been subject of limited concern by some even as the production plan was ready to begin.

For example, this concern was evident in one a letter written December 20, 1942 to a Grundy County farmer about whether or not he should incorporate hemp into the crop operation on his farm.

In the letter, E.W. Hamilton, well known as a consultant for the former Milwaukee, Wis., based Allis Chalmers farm equipment manufacturer and as an expert in grasses, pointed to the processing plants possibly "being outlived."

Hamilton told the farmer this could occur once imported rope-making products became available again and producers saw their hemp marketing opportunities dwindle.

Another concern shared by Hamilton, a brother-in law to the Grundy County farmer, was discussions he said he had with USDA officials of the time.

These individuals had "nothing to offer in the way of a future for hemp" once the war ended, Hamilton wrote.

"And they are the men who are handling the hemp project in Washington," he said in the letter.

Hemp production in the United States began tapering off as the war years ended.

Continued federal regulation of marijuana production in the U.S. also curbed production.

There are efforts by industrial hemp supporters across the country to remove industrial hemp from government regulation.

To the north, the crop is grown legally in Canada.

The hemp acreage there "is expected to double" in 2012, according to the HIA, a non-profit trade group.

Around the world, industrial hemp growing countries also include Spain, China, Japan, Korea, England, France, Africa, North Africa, Egypt and Ireland.

In the U.S., the future of industrial hemp continues to garner attention.

The HIA is encouraging crop research and development of new products made from industrial hemp.

The demand exists and it is growing, according to the HIA.

The 2010 U.S. retail market for hemp products produced with imported hemp was estimated at $419 million, according to the HIA.

This figure was expected to reach $450 million for 2011.