Hemp Fiber Crop Research & Development

With the advent of state laws that overturn a sixty-year ban on hemp agriculture, a new and yet anciently rooted era of farming is on the horizon. The early adopters who are now backed by legislative and regulatory bodies are Kentucky, Colorado and Washington. This growing season Fibershed is pleased to be working with farmers in two states to see an expansion of our ‘Language of the Landscape Program.’ Our program develops prototypes that lay the technical and aesthetic foundation for artisans and large brands alike. We document and to some degree establish the road-map for how to farm, process and blend homegrown fibers. This work is part historical and contemporary research, combined with on-the-ground experimentation. For each prototyping project, we collaborate with UC Berkeley’s Silver Lab to account for the carbon (soil respiration included) and water footprint from the soil to the skin. Our prototyping research is then open-sourced and becomes baseline knowledge for our biosphere-based fiber system.

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 2.08.30 PM
Kentucky Hemp Museum Archived Photo

The work of harvesting and processing hemp was known as one of the ‘most difficult jobs in agriculture,‘ according to a 1920s USDA account. Hemp grows densely (70 plants per sq. meter in some cases), and it is sturdy (fiber crops growing 9 to 15 feet in one growing season).  It is this sturdiness and density that makes it such an ideal character in the ongoing narrative to re-build and re-imagine a regenerative fiber system. When we look at the pressures on arable farm land—the use of fossil water from ancient aquifers, continuing droughts in the west, and the farm subsidies for conventional GMO corn and soy that dominate our farm belt and eat up our prairies—it is evident that we have some major changes to make to achieve any semblance of a sustainable agricultural system. Hemp offers some key features to a renewable fiber culture. 1)  It does not require fossil fuel based pesticides or herbicides. 2) It said to provide up to 8 tons of material per acre (up to 2 tons of textile grade fiber, compared to 70 pounds of wool per acre, or 500 pounds of organic cotton per acre). 3) The plant offers hurd and fiber from one harvest, equalling a suite of products beyond textiles from one growing season. 4) If grown in rotation with wheat, yield increases of up to 50% have been documented and if used to break the alfalfa cycle at years 2 or 3; the alfalfa crop sees a resurgence of growth and density. And yet, it is important to note there are drawbacks to the crop. It’s an annual, and that has historically meant tillage of soils (CO2 emissions), and high labor demands—and in today’s world, labor demands now equate to fuel use. Harvest and processing equipment tend to take the place of laborers, and as we will come to find out as we re-visit our history—the crop requires significant handling to become useful to humans.

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 2.08.09 PM
Kentucky Hemp Museum Archive Photo

Fibershed is exploring the value chain for fiber production, from the first decortication systems developed in the pre-industrial era, through to modern enzyme and “economy of scale equipment.” We received our first exposure to hand processing by ‘modern-day‘ ancients while in the Loire Valley in France more than 15 years ago. A small and quiet riverside farming community called Montjean continues a hemp farming tradition with the work of Chanvriers. Chanvre is the french word for hemp. Chanvriers are those that process it. More images of the river retting process here.

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 5.15.22 PM
Montjean Chanvrier: Photos by Frèdèric Raes / Bombe Verte

Due to the United States being 60+ years behind the rest of the world in hemp fiber farming and processing, it is evident that we have significant work ahead of us to build agro-ecology systems and value-addition processes that are both environmentally and economically feasible. Fibershed is beginning its first demonstration and research trials in Colorado. We chose our first site, a high-elevation (7,500 feet), water-constrained location, to experiment with how this crop may or may not suit the needs of agriculture in the West—a region that, as a whole, has been experiencing increasingly long durations of drought. When searching for seeds and experienced collaborators we sought individuals and institutions that could help us source cultivars that would function within this terrain. We built a relationship with hemp plant breeders from Australia to consult us in the process of choosing cultivars and developing a useful research agenda that would advance hemp agriculture for the best possible environmental and economic impact.

IMG_0026-L
Farmers, community members and students attended a Fibershed-sponsored community forum at Adam’s state College in Alamosa, Colorado. Photo: Michael Keefe/Crestone CO

Fibershed sponsored a series of community education events in the San Luis Valley of Colorado to support an increased knowledge base in both the general public and agricultural sectors. Phil Warner of Queensland, Australia (as seen above), describes his 15 years of research with cultivars from around the globe. Here he illuminates the connection between latitude and flowering time. The best way of determining  a potentially well-suited cultivar for a new region is to start with a latitudinal match, rather than other correlating factors such as soil-type and water requirements.

IMG_0053-L

Thanks to the efforts of local San Luis Valley residents—Rio de la Vista and County Commissioner Ben Doon—we had a very productive community forum with the County Commissioners of Costilla County and the residents from the surrounding farms and ranches. Costilla County is the site location for our research plots—the region is known as ‘Colorado’s birth place,’ a beautifully remote agricultural community with a track record of developing innovative projects to serve their local population. (A homegrown biodiesel plant and a soon-to-be agricultural institute to provide local food to the public school and elder care center are examples.)  We are grateful to have the opportunity to work with this community for this research seed trial. The ‘birth place of Colorado’ may now become one of the ‘birthplaces of Colorado hemp agriculture.’

IMG_2140
Left to right: Phil Warner, Patrick O’Neil, Rebecca Burgess, Ben Doon

Our test plots will be planted with two cultivars on county owned lands. To prepare for the planting we spent some time on a very windy March afternoon looking at the soil, and assessing the  potential irrigation and soil preparations for the site. Local residents will be hired to administer the farming operation, and collect plant morphology data. This particular site is blessed with a functioning well and water rights that will allow for a smooth growing season.

IMG_2313

We spent time at several locations dotted throughout the San Luis Valley assessing other potential planting sites. We analyzed existing equipment for its potential function for hemp farming—looking at seed planters, discing equipment, and other tractor fittings. It was extremely useful to have experienced hemp farming eyes and hands looking at our North American agricultural machinery. Our first stage of research this season (2014) is focused on charting flowering times to assess how these cultivars will grow in our latitude (38 degrees), and in the process we will measure water use, and test the function of local planting equipment. Our second year of research (2015), we will have a sense of which of the two seed types performed best from the year prior, and we will expand into testing more cultivars on two, or possibly three sites, and add variables such as planting date and soil type.

IMG_2286

From each site we will hand harvest and process the fiber as was done in the pre-industrial era (we have no highly mechanized options for this at present). We will be building our own hemp breaks, scutching and hackling equipment. Our secondary plans are to send the fiber through a domestic protein fiber milling system and explore the technicalities of blending wool, alpaca and hemp. We have much research to do between now and then on how to build, modify, and retrofit our existing technologies to make this possible. Our planting date in Colorado is May 25th, we will document and share our experience as it unfolds. We will also keep you posted on our ‘second state’ research trial as the images are collected and details become conclusory.

More soon…

11 thoughts on “Hemp Fiber Crop Research & Development

  1. Hello friends at Fibershed–
    What you’re doing for hemp, especially hemp fiber, sounds pretty on par with my company’s mission of reviving the American hemp trade, and goods being made locally.
    I harvested with Ryan Loflin last year in Springfield, coming all the way from Los Angeles to do so. My company is called Recreator, and we sell hemp T-shirts currently as well as doing some water-based textile printing in the downtown area–we finished our kickstarter campaign about a month ago. We’re currently trying to push the LA fashion industry toward more sustainable practices. We’re currently building our business, but in a year or so, we want to be milling hemp fibers as locally as possible.

    As far as hemp goes, we also have a trade association established in Indiana which was an important part of helping push the recently passed state legislation. We are currently in talks with Purdue and the state seed commissioner on how to move ahead in the state. I’m also in touch with a group in Canada looking to demo their mobile decorticator this year in the states (Indiana, Colorado, Kentucky thus far), and I’d like to ensure you all know of one another.

    Thanks for doing such important work.

    Regards,
    Justin

    1. Hey there,

      I am really really interested in your work. I am starting a sustainable fashion house and want to start a mid-atlantic fibershed chapter that reached from as far as NY to NC. I would like to have to co/redevelop some warehouse spaces in areas like Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago, and North Carolina to be our worker-owned facilities for people to sew and make actual fabrics like hemp and wool.

      Please contact me asap,

      Thanks,
      Lia T.

      1. Hi Lia, Thanks for your enthusiasm! If you are interested in starting a Fibershed affiliate group, there’s more information on our Affiliates page. Let me know if you have questions about that. Also, there are a few affiliate groups (listed on that page) that you might partner with for the worker-owned facilities you are envisioning. Stay in touch and let us know how your projects unfold.

    2. I would be one to purchase US hemp cloth for my apparel collection. There is just ON big issue NOT raised here- yet: For clothing, fiber must be chem-free. and ideally certifiable by GOTS standards. While interest in hemp is growing, it grows much in the health-conscious community. People with chem sensitivities purchase now certified goods from Rawganique, in CA-BC for example. In current European (German) hemp literature, there is mention of odor pollution; run off water from the retting process and its polluting effects. I attended recenty in wiesbaden the trade fair INNATEX, and could NOT find single source of 100% hemp fabric, (only mixed with cotton), and none that is chem and toxin free. european manufacturers and end consumers are well informed about the international certifications reg agro and labor practices. This is a topic missing here, no? Also: Vendors of finished goods and producers seem to guard their sources / contacts closely. There is no transparency. Rawganique sources org fibers in ? Italy. Of course there is presently only SO much of this precious organic fiber…. The cost factor of transprting fibers, then cloth and finally finished goods to distributors and to end consumers…. is rel and must be discussed here, as something small local growers have going for themselves. No cookie -cutter approach is possible again, and like many locally produced goods, like wine, speciality varieties may evolve, al for good reasons. That too is why Monsanto has no chance of winning the hearts of consumers. I DO hope that universities who underwrite some of the research will share their findings. And I applaud Justin for wanting to empower others along his own learning curve! Thank you all! Hemp is gorgeous.

    3. I saw your comment on fibershed and wanted to let you know that we are a vertically integrated US artisan textile and apparel manufacturer that right now specializes in all natural alpaca light weight knit apparel but are looking to grow, process and manufacture hemp apparel. I would like to speak with you about perhaps a collaboration.
      Bruce Bennett, Waite Hill Fabrics

  2. Hi Justin!
    Thank you for your great note. I love your commitment to this fiber. The decortication machine from Canada sounds very interesting. Do you know where this decorticator is planned on making its rounds? For textile grade fiber we are trying to figure out if the field decorticator should be used after a month or so of retting. I think retting will take different amounts of time based on the humidity of the region….and it would be very helpful to know if this decorticator is available for perhaps our research plots?

    We’d open source all the data we collect to help advance the intellectual know-how; and we would be interested in collaborating with clothing manufacturers as we move through the cloth prototyping processes.

    Wow, to think we could decorticate in field and get one step closer to a textile grade fiber! That would be wonderful.. My questions are mainly about availability of the machine, the timing, and the quality of raw material it produces… as well as what the follow up processing steps would be .

    Thanks so much for getting in touch!
    Rebecca

    1. I would be one to purchase US hemp cloth for my apparel collection. There is just ON big issue NOT raised here- yet: For clothing, fiber must be chem-free. and ideally certifiable by GOTS standards. While interest in hemp is growing, it grows much in the health-conscious community. People with chem sensitivities purchase now certified goods from Rawganique, in CA-BC for example. In current European (German) hemp literature, there is mention of odor pollution; run off water from the retting process and its polluting effects. I attended recenty in wiesbaden the trade fair INNATEX, and could NOT find single source of 100% hemp fabric, (only mixed with cotton), and none that is chem and toxin free. european manufacturers and end consumers are well informed about the international certifications reg agrar and labor practices. This is a topic missing here, no? Also: Vendors of finished goods and producers seem to guard their contacts closely. There is no transparency. Rawganique too guards its sources, places of production. I Do hope that universities who underwrite some of the research will share their findings. And I applaud Jstin for wanting to empower others along his own learning curve! Thank you all! Hemp is gorgeous.

  3. Hi.
    I run a small non-profit weaving operation in Northern New Mexico. Currently we are using all locally sourced wool, woven at a local mill. I would very much like to introduce a line of hemp drapes …problem has been sourcing hemp yarn. I would be very interested in any information about hemp yarn and would be happy to work with producers to develop a workable yarn.
    Also, have to say…I helped my neighbors in Thailand plant, grow and cultivate hemp and it was one of the easiest crops…we just threw the seeds in and 6 months later went to cut it down (which is a bit smelly) no weeding, no watering, ideal for the arid southwest…processing is always the complication.
    Hope to communicate further.
    Leigh

  4. Leonore, thanks for your contribution to this discussion!
    Yes, hemp is gorgeous…in theory, and occasionally in practice. As you pointed out, in certain stages of processing the fibre, it can cause awful amounts of pollution. More disturbing is the murkiness around how/if this process is monitored and handled, esp. as the scale of operations grows, such growth being ultimately the hope here, no? As long as hemp apparel companies resist transparency or full disclosure in their suppliers’ retting methods, etc., then we as consumers are left with endless Net-surfing to do our best to choose product lines which are in every aspect ecological…whether hemp-based or not…Otherwise, we may as well shop for hempwear on marketplaces like eBay, so as not to send a false message that we demand new hemp clothing, regardless of environmental/health costs.
    For what it’s worth, on the website for Pickering International is a description of their sourcing for organic linen. Reading that offers some hope for what could become available for its sister fibre, hemp, if not already out there waiting to be discovered!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *