Aaron Schoeneman, Founder and Director, Iowa Hemp Association
Since the beginning of time, existence was understood to be dependent on a symbiotic relationship with the environment. While this is still true today, many modern farm practices stress the land in the pursuit of reaching the needs of an ever-growing population. For example, focusing on only two major agricultural crops, corn and soybeans, has led to farmland and soil quality deterioration, erosion and compaction. Over-spraying of fertilizer has polluted our waters and spawned a hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico killing off fisheries, threatening local economies and traditional ways of life.
While many expensive solutions have been proposed, including increasing filtration of water systems as a response to high-nitrogen levels, sometimes it’s the simplest solution that can make the greatest difference: industrial hemp can do much more for farmland in terms of repairing and restoring damaged soils as well as decreasing nitrogen levels in our waterways.
Before you stop reading, I do not mean marijuana. Although of the same species, industrial cannabis (or “hemp”) typically has less than 0.3% of the active ingredient of its drug cousin. While worthless from a psychoactive point of view, hemp is a raw material for a variety of consumer, industrial and medical applications. Hemp represents a $620 million industry in the United States alone, and by some estimates is projected to grow to an annual industry size in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
In the 1930s the USDA began research on hemp because they recognized the environmental benefits it could provide to America. Since then, other countries have also recognized hemp’s unique ability to pull excess materials and even deadly heavy metals from the soil, as evidence by hemp’s role in the cleanup of the nuclear wasteland surrounding Chernobyl. In fact, of all the industrialized farming nations in the world, the United States continues to be the only one which does not grow hemp as an agricultural crop. Hemp should be used to clean pollutants and restore Iowa’s soil to the rich lifeblood it once was. Why? It is simply cheaper and more effective at cleansing the soils in the ways that will benefit Iowa’s farmers while at the same time serving as a strong cash crop in rotation.
Some of the most costly and damaging problems plaguing Iowa’s soil today are over fertilization, soil erosion and compaction. Introducing hemp into crop rotations will do more than just add much needed diversity to our cropland. Hemp can reach heights of up to 18 feet and can produce nearly 4-5 times more biomass per acre than corn stover, making it a much stronger feedstock for our fledgling cellulosic ethanol facilities. When grown, hemp can return nutrients to the soil rather than just consume any nitrogen available in the ground. When field-retting hemp for fiber, nutrients return to the soil, creating balance and equilibrium. When grown for seed, hemp’s leaves naturally fall to the soil as the plant matures, further returning nitrogen to the soil. This symbiotic relationship with the land implies that hemp can help nourish our soil back to health while maintaining a strong economic outlook for the farmers growing it!
Beyond this it can help repair damage to soils caused by the effects of compaction and erosion. In Iowa, we grow mainly two crops: corn and soybeans. Corn, on one hand, has a deep, fibrous tap root system which can penetrate many feet below the surface but, due to its fibrous nature, leads to soil compaction over the winter and into the spring. Soybeans have a strong tap root, but they do not penetrate below the topsoil. Growing these two crops exclusively has led to major soil compaction issues, as there is no crop that is breaking up the compacted soil. Hemp, with a deep taproot reaching up to 8 or 9 feet, can break up compaction, aerate the soil and further aid in nutrient absorption and uptake by plants season-over-season.
This rebalancing effect is just one positive impact to hemp growth. The other is that soils that have been rebalanced from hemp’s integration into rotations have resulted in increased crop yields for both corn and soybeans.
These are just some of the positive environmental effects Iowa can benefit from when it comes to hemp. When the earth is what we depend on to survive and for our security as a species and country we should do everything possible to respect and preserve it, even if it means breaking ways with old practices. Instead of spending millions of dollars on researching new quick fixes to the environmental degradation caused by our modernized agricultural practices we should take the natural route. Grow hemp!