Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+ Join today!.
In a cluttered storefront on Main Street in the quiet Mennonite community of Blue Ball, Pennsylvania, Shawn Patrick House pulls a faded print from a stack of old magazines, sales brochures and posters. The print, from a photograph taken on September 24, 1908, shows a farmer in a broad-brimmed hat, long sleeves and suspenders, riding along on his mechanical mowing machine behind a team of white horses. Standing tall behind them, and fallen in rows at their feet, are acres of hemp, once a mainstay of the American agricultural economy. “Since the 1600s, all Dutch and German farmers in this area grew hemp to make ropes, sails and ship riggings, fabrics and oil,” House says. “But an entire way of life has been wiped out. Farmers are hurting, and more and more of them are turning to carpentry or other trades. It shouldn’t have to be that way.”
A wholesaler of Hempzels pretzels and other products made from hemp grown in Canada, the thirty-something Pennsylvania native is determined to revive Lancaster County’s economy and introduce a new generation to a crop that decades of misguided governmental policy have all but destroyed. The war on commercial hemp––rooted in the belief that commercial hemp and recreational marijuana are the same thing––is a tragedy not only for farmers but for consumers. If hemp is not nature’s perfect plant, it is as close as we may ever come to it. The North American Industrial Hemp Council estimates that more than 25,000 products can be manufactured with hemp, from cosmetics to auto-body parts. The first diesel engine was fueled by hemp oil, found inside hempseeds. The seeds are used to make foods such as bagels, corn chips, breads, cookies and animal feed. The oil can be used in skin lotions, moisturizers, shampoos, lip balms, paints, inks, sealants and varnishes. The fiber, taken from the outside of the stalks, is versatile too. Fabrics, found in clothing, accessories, carpeting and upholstery, are made from the fiber, while the stalks are used in teabags, fiberglass and plastics.
“Hemp is our most versatile and environmentally benign crop,” says Albert Lewis, owner of Hempy’s, a San Diego manufacturer of hemp-based clothing and accessories sold in the United States, Canada and Japan. “It’s a natural fiber and a renewable resource that can be grown organically.”
“The government’s opposition to hemp defames mankind’s single most useful, nutritious plant,” says Richard Rose, author of The HempNut Health and Cookbook and founder of HempNut, Inc., a Northern California food company with sales in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan.
House believes his Hempzels are far more nutritious than conventional pretzels. “Mine are made with whole wheat, shelled hempseed and organic brown rice and no preservatives,” he says. “They’re a great source of protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, essential for healthy metabolism, brain cell development and fighting high blood pressure.” Mass marketing even these healthy foods represents a huge challenge. Hemp has been associated in the popular consciousness with marijuana since the late 1960s and remains tainted by that connection. Despite hemp’s illustrious past—George Washington grew it at Mount Vernon, Betsy Ross sewed her American flag with it and Benjamin Franklin owned a hemp mill—hemp-growing in this country was regulated out of existence starting in the Great Depression, when the Marihuana [sic] Tax Act of 1937 was passed. The only exception to the crackdown was in World War II, when supplies of hemp fiber, obtained from the Philippines, were interrupted, and a wartime Hemp Industries Board encouraged its cultivation for military use. A million acres of “Hemp for Victory” were grown and, after the war, when hemp could be obtained from overseas again, the government sold its mills for surplus. In 1958, the last industrial hemp crop in America ceased operations. The recreational drug use of the ’60s only steeled the federal government’s determination to make all forms of Cannibas sativa illegal. Although commercial hemp and marijuana are two different plants––the latter has 30 times as great a narcotic content––the federal government regards them as identical.
You can’t “get high” smoking commercial hemp, as policymakers in more and more agricultural states have come to realize. A number of states have asked Washington to relax its restrictions, and others have commissioned studies to assess hemp’s commercial potential. Eager to use hemp in building materials and as a source for ethanol, Hawaii is working with the federal government to plant hemp under an experimental program. How long it will take to reverse decades of prejudice is anybody’s guess. Until laws change, American manufacturers will continue to import hempseed flour and fiber from Canada.
“To outlaw one crop because its cousin has psychoactive properties is crazy,” says Frank Angiuli, co-owner of Santa Monica’s Natural High Lifestyles, which supplies hemp-based clothing to yoga studios and high-end retailers like Fred Segal and Urban Outfitters. “You can make opium out of poppies, but the government does not say you can’t have poppy-seed bagels,” Lewis says. “If the government would change the laws, hemp would certainly thrive.”
Rose urges caution. “Sometimes the reaction to the government’s policies has been as counterproductive as the government’s policies themselves,” he says. “For a time, the only hemp food being produced was cooked up by some dread-locked guys in their kitchens in Oregon because hemp’s connection to marijuana was ‘cool.’ That didn’t help, nor have some pro-hemp activists who’ve oversold its potential. We must deal with the realistic possibilities of a serious agricultural crop that has real uses and will find real markets.”
In New Holland, five miles down back roads from House’s storefront, is Garden Spot Distributors, which supplies about 1,000 hemp products, mostly in dry bulk, to several hundred health-food stores from Cleveland to the East Coast. Garden Spot’s 13,000-foot warehouse sits across the road from a field where a four-horse team patiently works the soil. Against a backdrop of well-kept barns, silos and windmills, two girls in long dresses pedal their bicycles. Laundry billows from clotheslines, drying in the afternoon sun. A boy working a garden wears a very grown-up—and unseasonable—felt hat. It’s ironic that so trendy a cause as hemp finds its epicenter in such a traditional culture.
Garden Spot carries House’s products, but not nearly as eagerly as he’d like. “As soon as I can, I’ll bring in more,” Matt King, a Garden Spot project manager, tells House as they huddle on the loading dock, discussing markets and warehouse space. “Right now, there’s not a lot I can do.”
If House is disappointed, he does not seem discouraged. “I never believed this would be easy,” he says. A combination manufacturer’s rep, marketing consultant and industry educator, he has been knocking on doors since 1997, when he introduced a novelty item, Nitanny Lion Lip Balm, manufactured from hempseed oil for Penn State football fans. Since then, he has branched out into hemp-based cookies, pancake batter, energy bars and clothing, representing Hempola, Nutiva, Hemp Basics and other manufacturers. He has learned to be flexible and patient. Small hemp-based companies like his have a tough time competing with more established brands. “Because they have no economies of scale, their prices are higher,” Agiuli says. “They need the backing of larger companies, but they are afraid they’ll alienate existing customers by having anything to do with hemp. Small companies also operate in a regulatory environment that’s totally uncertain.”
Among the Plain Folk
At the roadside Dutch Country Bakery, hot pretzel sticks are rolling off a conveyor belt, where Mennonite girls in long dresses and bonnets sell them three for $2. “We’ve got a big following among the Plain Folk,” says owner Ike Stoltzfus, whose ovens turn out 10,000 pretzels a day, most of them sold in 150 stores in Ohio and Pennsylvania. In two weeks, Stoltzfus will put through another batch of Hempzels, which make up a small but cherished portion of his commercial-baking business. “I know my business is small and struggling,” House admits. “But I feel like Bill Gates in the early days of Microsoft. Hemp today is where the soy industry was 30 years ago, when nobody’d heard of it. This is the future.” That may be. But here in Pennsylvania Dutch country, it looks a good deal like a venerable past—a past House and other health-conscious, environmentally aware Americans are determined to restore.