Growing Like a Weed
(Page 2 of 4)
Some innovative farmers modified their reapers for hemp cutting by mounting a reel several feet above the cutter. The purpose of the reel was to lay the hemp stalks evenly on the reaper's table, where they were gathered and evenly swept to the ground. Larger and more successful producers eventually opted for more specialized equipment, available (at least experimentally) in the 1920s from International Harvester. These machines, based on the modified 'high-reel' reapers, were designed to cut the hemp and lay it out evenly.
'My father-in-law, Alfred Loomans, owned a hemp reaper with his brother-in-law, Clarence Bruins,' Harold Rens recalls. 'It was bull-wheel powered and they pulled it with seven horses.' Machines such as those, either horse- or tractor-drawn, were key to convincing modern farmers to embrace hemp as a viable crop. 'The machine had about an 8-foot cutter, which was perfect for hemp that was up to 9 feet tall,' Junior says, explaining that the reel drew the hemp into the cutter and, once cut, onto a canvas conveyor. The conveyor delivered batches of cut stalks to a rotating table that dropped thin layers of stalks with their butt ends aligned on the ground. The end result was an even windrow with the stalks oriented perpendicular to the direction the cutter was traveling, which set the stage for retting.
Before the valuable fibers can be removed efficiently from the hemp stalks, the glue that holds them together must first be loosened (or removed altogether) by retting. Usually, the stalks were dew-retted by allowing them to lie in the field after cutting, although in some areas of the world, hemp was water-retted by placing bundles of stalks in ponds or streams.
The water-retting process yielded more uniform fiber with a direct cost of even more labor. Workers would cut and bundle the hemp, move it to the water, remove it from the water, spread it out to dry, and then pick it up again for further processing. The U.S. Navy paid a premium for water-retted hemp in the early 1800s, but farmers found that the work was so hard that it was simply not worth it. Moreover, that process polluted the water and stripped valuable nutrients from the soil - concerns that even early growers were aware of.
Dew-retting took anywhere from two to six weeks or more, requiring that the hemp stalks be turned at least once for the highest-quality fiber. 'At first, we turned the hemp by hand with a long stick that was slipped under one end and lifted,' Harold explains. It wasn't until the late 1930s that hemp-turning implements became prevalent, at least in the upper Midwest. By 1943, the Tower Co. of Mendota, 111., offered a dedicated tractor-pulled, PTO-driven hemp-turning machine, which helped improve the quality of the fiber.