Friday, August 9, 2013

Your Ancestors Grew Hemp--Isn't that Marijuana?

Hemp Fields in Russia 1910.  From the Produkin-Gorskii Collection, Library of Congress

My Ukrainian ancestors grew hemp for a living.   The fact my great grandparents grew hemp was a source of snickering and jokes whenever it was mentioned.  My grandmother tried to make it very clear that no one used this plant as a recreational drug--it was far to valuable to them, and was one of the few ways that the family could earn some cash. In fact, my grandmother told me that she was punished as a girl when she and her friends knocked down hemp plants while they were playing.

Russian Woman Preparing Flax 1910. From the Produkin-Gorskii Collection.
So, was this the marijuana that people use today?  The answer is yes and no.  All hemp belongs to the cannabis family, and can't be grown legally in the United States.  The cannabis plant that is known as hemp has a very low concentration of THC, which is what gives marijuana its effect.
Hemp is a versatile agricultural plant that is grown all over the world and it is a major product of Ukraine, Poland and Russia today.  Hemp has been grown since ancient times, hemp fiber was used to make paper during the Western Han Dynasty in China, 140-897 BC.  The  plant doesn't require a lot of rain or fertilizer, it benefits the soil and can be grown for several seasons without using crop rotation.  This was important to the small farmers in Western Ukraine, where the family farms were small, often two acres in size. 
Growing hemp before World War I Ukraine was a family affair, and most of the plant was used by the family or sold. The plant was cut, bundled and left to dry and break down in the field, a process called dew retting. Sometimes it was floated in water in order to break down the fiber, this was called water retting.  Then the hemp was broken down further by using a simple machine that crushed the fiber and made it easier to separate.  My Great-Grandmother, Maria Bryniak Rychlyj spent much of her life preparing hemp, and suffered asthma from prolonged exposure to hemp fiber. My grandmother, Pauline Rychlyj Koshuba and her sisters, spun the hemp fibers into thread, which was used to weave the cloth used to clothe the family. Hemp seed oil was used for cooking, however, most of their hemp crop was sold for cash.

Women Preparing Hemp in Ukraine.  Photo from L'Arte Rustique En Russie, Numero Special Du "Studio", Automne, 1912.

Today hemp is used to make hemp seed foods, hemp oil, wax, rope, cloth, pulp for paper,  and fuel. The hemp oil can be used to make a product similar to linseed oil, or as a moisturizing agent in cosmetic creams.  It is also used in cooking oil and biodegradable plastics.   Hemp seeds are also an ingredient in birdseed. 
The inspiration for this blog post came to me after reading the following article about growing hemp in Colorado in the New York Times.
Click on the underlined link above to read the article.