Growing Like a Weed

| November 2004

From seed to plant

Hemp was best cultivated on ground that was suitable for corn in a manner similar to small grains, according to a 1919 report from International Harvester's North Dakota research farm near Grand Forks. Farmers who planted hemp at a rate of three pecks of seed per acre noted that the stand choked out persistent weeds. Agronomists concluded that even if there was no value to the fiber or seed, hemp could effectively be grown in rotation for weed control alone.

Colonial hemp cultivators used rudimentary soil preparation hand tools such as digging sticks, hoes, rakes and spades to loosen the soil. Hemp seed was hand-broadcast, sometimes followed by a light raking. The persistence and scope of ditch weed throughout the U.S. attest to hemp's ability to take care of itself.

Hemp growers took full advantage of improved cultivation practices. Horse-drawn plows, harrows, cultivators and even cultipackers all played a role in hemp production, as with small grains in particular. Planting with horse- or tractor-drawn seed drills later improved stand uniformity, density and contributed greatly to seed economy.

'We drilled hemp with about 6-inch spacing in the late 1930s for a good stand,' Junior Prange explains. 'You got the best fiber on good ground, with close spacing.' Junior recalls that by then the recommended sowing rate was a bushel and a peck of seed per acre.

Cutting the crop

'Hemp is ready to cut at about 100 days depending on conditions,' Junior says. 'We planted small grain around the hemp so that we could get into the field with the reaper without knocking down any (hemp) stalks.'

Early hemp harvesting methods included cutting the plants with sickles and later hemp knives - backbreaking work often carried out by slaves, sharecroppers or migrant laborers. The hemp knife, longer-handled than the sickle, looked something like a modern corn knife. In some instances, the plants were uprooted rather than cut, but in either case, they were then laid on the ground in thin layers to allow exposure to dew and rain, partially rotting the stems in a process called 'retting.'