Editor’s Notebook: Why the hemp industry should heed cotton’s lessons and resist overproduction

Kristen Nichols is the editor of Hemp Industry Daily.

(This is an abridged version of a column that appears in the July issue of Marijuana Business Magazine.)

Hemp is worth 10 times as much as soybeans. No, 20 times. No, 100 times.

Sound too good to be true?

Farmers I know and trust insist that gold-rush dreams about hemp’s profitability are no fantasy. This plant can save the family farm, make some growers rich and give young people a reason to enter the farming profession.

That’s what worries me.

I’m not questioning hemp’s profit potential.

I’m worried that hemp is too much like cotton, another fiber crop with a nasty reputation for damaging the land.

Hempsters like to talk about how superior hemp is to cotton. Hemp takes less water to grow, they say, and a fraction of the pesticides and fertilizer. We should all abandon cotton and start using hemp!

But this attitude ignores some pretty powerful lessons from the cotton industry. Like Irish potatoes before the 1840s, cotton was so profitable in the American South that landowners grew it year after year, decade after decade.

Cotton was so profitable that 18th-century landowners convinced themselves that it justified the horrors of slavery, that the world would overlook those horrors to keep the money flowing.

The South’s cotton economy made a few people rich. But the cotton economy relied on the mass torture of countless more people, and it ruined the land.

Cotton itself was blameless. The problem was that cotton’s big profits caused an entire region to ignore nature and force monoculture on fertile land, growing the same crop for decades on end. No other crop could compete with cotton’s profits.

By the time 10 Southern states seceded in a desperate bid to save their cotton economy, the residents of those states could barely feed themselves.

More than 150 years later, the scars of cotton monoculture are evident across the South today – both in degraded land and the human toll of slavery.

So, all this talk about hemp’s profitability worries me, because I see investors planning to grow hundreds or thousands of acres of hemp. Nothing else – just hemp.

It’s a recipe for ecological disaster.

No plant is immune from insects. Every farmer wants to maximize profits. The combination means that the dream of endless fields of hemp, all grown without pesticides or irrigation, won’t last long.

Luckily, hemp farmers know the dangers of monoculture and care deeply about the land.

Let’s just hope those big profits don’t get in the way of growing hemp the right way.

Kristen Nichols can be reached at [email protected]

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5 comments on “Editor’s Notebook: Why the hemp industry should heed cotton’s lessons and resist overproduction
  1. Hempie Hempenstein on

    I generally find this site and its articles to be a tremendous resource of knowledge and information but this one missed the boat for me. I am struggling to see the connection between the civil war era cotton boom and today’s industrial hemp industry. I wish you would have delved more into the ecological side of the matter as the illusions to the “horrors of slavery” and the “torture of countless more people” aren’t really comparable to the modern day. Yes, the South’s cotton economy was built on the backs of slaves but I think these “scars” the South have experienced could also be attributed to the long term effects of the Civil War. Either way, I think making comparisons relying primarily on the fact that the cotton industry chose profits over human rights is a rather tenuous connection considering slavery does not exist in our society any longer. That is just my opinion but I enjoy your articles nonetheless and will continue to follow along.

    Best,

    Hempie Hempenstein

    Reply
    • Kristen Nichols on

      Hi, this Kristen Nichols responding. Thanks for your feedback on this month’s column.

      I am a Georgia native and have learned since moving away that that Southrons learn waaaaay more about the cotton industry than Yankees do! So I hoped to avoid a long lecture about the environmental consequences of cotton monoculture — consequences that are absolutely still affecting cotton-country soils.

      Duke University keeps excellent track of this through its ecology department, as do other schools. Duke and others point out that that a half-foot to an entire foot of topsoil have been lost from Virginia to Alabama because of cotton monoculture. (For a scary look at what that means, google “Providence Canyon Georgia” or “Little Grand Canyon Georgia” — a 150-foot-deep gash in the south Georgia piedmont caused entirely by poor farming practices). Many have heard of the Deep South’s red clay soil, something they talk about in “Gone With The Wind.” Welp, the soil didn’t start that way! That’s what it looks like after the topsoil is gone.

      I believe the human toll of the cotton economy is worth considering for the modern hemp producer, too, though we are thankfully generations removed from slavery. I think that lesson is, don’t let any crop’s profitability blind you to the ethical considerations of your production methods.

      I hope my response helps explain where I was coming from. Strongly value your feedback — keep the comments coming, especially when I miss the mark!

      -Kristen

      Reply
      • Hempie Hempenstein on

        Thanks for the reply Kristen! I had no idea about the half-foot of topsoil that has been lost and was not familiar with either Providence Canyon or Little Grand Canyon so thanks for bringing these to my attention. I hope you didn’t take my comments negatively, I was genuinely curious about the ecological comparison between the two crops which you graciously expanded on. Keep up the good work!

        Best,

        Hempie Hempenstein

        Reply
  2. Brian Skeele on

    I saw a video where a fellow claimed for every pound of green above ground, 1.5 pounds of carbon were sequestered below ground when hemp is harvested by cutting off at the ground level.

    This is a huge opportunity to restore the soil, and sequester carbon.

    Planting densely with hemp, it is said to eliminate pesticides and herbicides. That is huge. Glyphosate is a total losing proposition for soil health and creating super weeds, not even considering the cost and health consequences to farmers and the consumers. Mayo clinic says 1/3 of americans have liver disease, due to glyphosate.

    I would agree, prices for hemp are insane right now, hopefully, the market will correct as farmers grow more world wide. that there are 25,000 products that can be made from hemp, speaks to a huge potential for the market. Lots of processes need to be worked out, and I doubt all on those will be cost effective products, but right now…Massive carbon sequestration will save our society, so plant the world, I say!

    Reply

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