The cultivation of hemp dates back to America's earliest settlers and hemp products including rope, paper, canvas helped build America. While the crop fell victim to marijuana prohibition, it was brought back during World War 2 to provide rope for the U.S. Navy.
In Nov. 2012, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, legalizing marijuana in that state. Amendment 64 also allows the legal cultivation of hemp, pending legislative authorization.
Wisconsin lawmakers have sponsored hemp related bills over the years but because of federal law, any state effort is likely to continue to be symbolic. But clearly, with talk of full legalization widespread after Colorado and Washington voters repealed marijuana prohibition in those states Nov. 6, 2012, hemp offers a huge range of opportunities for business and job creation for hemp producers and the industries that would arise to process the plant, if legal.
Farmers first grew hemp in Wisconsin before it was admitted as a state in 1848. In the early 1900's. Hemp was even grown by inmates at the state prison in Waupun and on the grounds of what is today the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison. Wisconsin hemp was used for rope in the first World War, but the crop had less success in the years after, with the 1937 federal Marijuana Tax Act dealing another blow. But when World War Two broke out, eliminating hemp sources in the Dutch East Indies, Philippines, and other locations, farmers from Wisconsin and other states with a hemp growing past were tapped as defense contractors and tasked with growing twenty thousands acres of hemp, bringing millions of dollars to Wisconsin farmers and processors.
Wisconsin is referenced several times in the 1942 movie "Hemp for Victory," produced by the federal government to urge farmers to help the war effort by growing hemp for rope to supply the needs of the U.S. Navy.
Madison's Capital Times published an article in Feb. 1941 titled "State's $3,000,000 Hemp Crop Serves Defense Need." The article noted, "Wisconsin produces over 75 per cent of the hemp raised commercially in the United States. It is grown most extensively in a midstate area embracing Green Lake, Dodge, Columbia and Fond du Lac counties. There are hemp fiber mills at Beaver Dam, Juneau and Brandon. During the latter part of the World war, 13 such mills were operating throughout central Wisconsin, but only three survived the lean-post-war period."
In November, 1942, the Rhinelander Daily News carried an item in their "War Farm News" column: "Hemp - Wisconsin farmers, who this year produced 8,000 acres of hemp, will be called upon to grow 40,000 of the 200,000 hemp acres required to meet the nation's needs of 300 to 400 million pounds of hemp fiber for next year. Although Winnebago, Green Lake, Fond du Lac, Columbia, Dodge, Washington, Iowa, Grant, Lafayette, Dane, Rock, Walworth, Racine and Kenosha counties have been selected to do this, job, some interest is being shown in Oneida county. The price will vary from. $39 to $50 per ton. "
To put things in perspective, forty-thousand acres is 62.5 square miles of cannabis hemp plants. By comparison, Milwaukee, the state's largest city is about 95 square miles and Madison around 78.
The extent of federal investment in hemp and hemp industry infrastructure was reported in a Sunday, December 3I, 1944 Wisconsin State Journal article, "Loss of Foreign Rope Supply Partly Met by State Industry."
According to the article, "Forty-two plants have been built in the nation by the government for the processing of hemp, and six of these plants are located in Wisconsin."
One of those hemp mills was located along Highway 51 north of Madison in DeForcst. The article included this description of the facilities, noting: "the storage yard of the 50-acre site of the plant may be stacked as much as the 12,000 tons of hemp produced in 1943 by 458 farmers in the vicinity on some 3,700 acres of land."
As we all know the U.S. went on to win the war and the years Wisconsin farmland bloomed with millions of cannabis plants slipped into the memory hole. Wisconsin defense contractors of today include companies like Oshkosh Corp. and Marinette Marine Co. But there was a time when those contractors were not huge corporations but farmers tilling their fields.
Wisconsin is ripe for a revitalization of the hemp industry today with so many more known uses now developed for the hemp plant. Hemp is not just for rope anymore with the plant's fibers offering great utility and the seeds and their oil a source of food, fuel and even earth-friendly plastics. Hempcrete, a mixture of hemp hurds (shives) and lime (possibly including natural hydraulic lime, sand, pozzolans or cement), is a green, energy efficient means of construction that stores carbon. A return to hemp cultivation could unlock a whole new era of prosperity for Wisconsin's once booming hemp industry.