Mar 22 2012
By Michael Bomford
Hemp and flax have a lot in common. Both have a long history in Kentucky, but neither is grown in the Commonwealth today. Both can be used to make fiber for fabric and paper. Both are potential bioenergy crops. Both have seeds rich in nutritious fatty acids. Both are low-input crops, well-suited to organic production.
The key difference is that flax farming is legal in Kentucky; hemp farming is not. Perhaps because the federal government doesn’t allow hemp production, calls for its return are newsworthy. Agriculture Commissioner James Comer coasted to victory after calling for industrial hemp production in the Commonwealth. Two weeks ago, Kentucky’s House Agriculture and Small Business Committee held a hearing on two bills that would change state law to allow hemp production.
The General Assembly is unlikely to pass either bill in 2012, and even if it did, the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA’s) interpretation of federal law would also have to change before Kentucky farms can grow hemp legally again. Hemp is Cannabis sativa, the same species as marijuana, but it contains just trace amounts of the psychoactive chemical found in the narcotic. Smoking it won’t make you high. Hemp production has been allowed under North Dakota state law since 1999, but the federal DEA has rejected all applications for permits to grow it commercially there, or in any of the other states that have followed North Dakota’s lead. While North Dakota farmers wait to be allowed to grow hemp, they lead the country in flax production.
Kentucky place names remind us of the historical importance of both hemp and flax in the Commonwealth. Hemp Ridge is near Shelbyville. Flax Branch is a stream in Floyd County, Flax Creek is in Lincoln County, and Flax Patch is in Knox County.
In 1775, when hemp was first planted in Kentucky, most settlers already had a patch of flax to supply household needs. For almost a century, Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region was the center of the US hemp industry, which existed mainly to make fiber for ropes, sails, and paper. Flax continued to be widely grown throughout the state, too: By 1850, Kentucky grew about half of the nation’s hemp, and about a quarter of its flax. Farmers often grew the two crops in rotation, since both could be harvested and processed with the same equipment. Flax made a finer fiber, used for clothing; while hemp made a courser fiber, suitable for rope. Except in wartime, hemp prices were often below the cost of production, yet the crop’s ability to combat weeds made it a worthwhile addition to a rotation.
Kentucky’s hemp and flax industries both went into rapid decline in the late 1800s, due to competition from cheaper imported fibers like jute, manila, and sisal; falling costs of domestic cotton production; and the replacement of sailing ships with steamboats. By 1860, Missouri had replaced Kentucky as the nation’s largest hemp producer. Both hemp and flax had almost completely disappeared from the nation’s farms by the late 1940s. The last legal commercial hemp crop was harvested in Wisconsin in 1957. The DEA has prevented hemp from returning legally since then, but flax has made something of a come-back in the Dakotas, Montana, and Minnesota.
Most of the hemp sold in the US today comes from Canada, where farmers have been allowed to grow the crop since 1998. Canada also grows more than twice as much flax as the USA. Canadian farmers are not making a lot of money from either crop: Net returns are in the neighborhood of $100 per acre. Most of the income from both hemp and flax production today comes from selling the nutritious seeds, which are rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. The useful fiber portion of the crop often goes unsold because fiber processors are few and far between, and transporting bulky straw is expensive. The economics look a little better for organic production, with substantial premiums available for organically-grown hemp and flax seeds and fibers.
Markets for hemp and flax have been volatile in recent years, with many growers losing money on both crops. Canadian hemp growers were hard hit in 1999, when a California processor contracted to purchase 40% of the hemp crop, then went bankrupt. It took seven years for the industry to recover, then acreage crashed again in 2007, due to a lack of fiber processors. Canadian flax growers were also hurt by a 2009 scandal that closed the European market to Canadian flax, after it was found to be contaminated with a genetically modified variety that had not been released for commercial production. Recent years have seen substantial declines in flax acreage on both sides of the border, as farmers dedicate more land to corn and soybeans, which generate far greater returns.
Harvested area of flax in Canada and the USA, 2010-11. Most US flax is grown in North Dakota, shown separately.
Flax tends to out-yield hemp in Canada. Hemp prices are higher, so profitability is similar (and low) for both crops. Both crops have seeds rich in essential fatty acids. The ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids from hemp seed closely matches the needs of the human body, but flax seed is richer in Omega-3 fatty acids, which tend to be lacking in most diets.
A 1998 study by a University of Kentucky team of economists projected net returns of $120-$340 per acre for hemp production in Kentucky. It didn’t consider flax production, but the Canadian experience suggests that flax could offer similar returns. The authors note that Kentucky-based processing facilities would be needed for farmers to realize profits in the higher end of their projected range. Commissioner Comer wants these to be placed in economically-depressed areas of the state that used to depend on tobacco production. If there really is potential for a low-input, multi-use fiber and oilseed crop, like hemp, then why not experiment with flax? Processing facilities could be built for flax in the near term, and used for hemp, too, should it ever become legal again. The Canadian experience suggests that hemp may not live up to its advocates’ hype, but Kentucky doesn’t have to wait for the federal DEA to change its tune to re-introduce a similar once-prominent crop… flax.