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Industrial Hemp: Its Properties and Potential
as an Alternative Crop

Donald P. Briskin
Professor of Plant Biochemistry/Physiology
Department of Natural and Environmental Sciences
(217) 244-1115
Donald P. Briskin

There is widespread interest in the possible use of industrial hemp as an alternative crop in Illinois. Industrial hemp represents varieties of Cannibis sativa plants that have been selected for high fiber production and very low levels of the drug chemical Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The fiber from industrial hemp is one of the strongest natural fibers known, and it is present in bundles that surround the main stem. Industrial hemp fiber applications include uses in textiles, cordage, construction materials, paper products, and bio-composite plastics.

Industrial hemp in cultivatio

Figure 1. Industrial hemp in cultivation.
Harvesting of industrial hemp

Figure 2. Harvesting of industrial hemp.

Industrial hemp is a fast-growing crop with a wide tolerance of environmental conditions. Under optimal conditions, hemp plants can be harvested after about 95 to 120 days of growth. Due to its rapid growth and typically high planting density, hemp growth effectively suppresses weeds and requires no herbicide application. On the other hand, optimal growth of hemp does require an adequate supply of nitrogen, so fertilization may be necessary.

Industrial hemp has proven to be an excellent crop in rotation with cereals. Benefits include improvements in soil structure and weed eradication for the subsequent crop.

Harvesting industrial hemp plants involves cutting the stem at the soil line, field drying/retting, and bailing. Several different large-scale industrial processes can be used to remove the fibers and separate the hurds (internal woody regions of the stem).

An ongoing breeding program in several European countries has resulted in a number of industrial hemp varieties with high fiber yield that potentially could be useful for growth under Illinois conditions. If approved by the Illinois state government, a pilot research project will be conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to further evaluate modern hemp cultivars for their potential as a new crop in Illinois agriculture.

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