Bulletin 293 - Wisconsin’s Hemp Industry. Agricultural Experiment Station | Farm Life | agupdate.com

2022-07-15 23:38:07 By : Mr. David liu

Hemp shocks wait in a field for processing, date unknown, near the village of Brandon in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin.

Workers harvest hemp about 1917 with a Mogul 10-20 tractor and a hemp harvester. -- International Harvester collection

Stock piles shown are being built in 1943 for Matt Rens Hemp Company for a mill located on a 120-acre farm near Brandon, Wisconsin. The company operates two mills and has been producing hemp fiber for a number of years. It is being used mostly in the manufacture of thread ... The Farmall H shown is one of four Farmall tractors operated by the Matt Rens Hemp Company.

A woman feeds hemp stalks into a crusher for rope production, Oct. 6, 1944, during World War II, in the village of Deforest in Dane County, Wisconsin. Photographer Arthur M. Vinje

A group of men and a young boy are breaking hemp April 21, 1911, at the Brigham farm near Blue Mounds in Dane County, Wisconsin. Paul Vanderbilt collection

Hemp has been grown in Wisconsin for 10 years (as of 1918). It has been found that hemp can be grown very successfully in the state, that the climate and certain soils of Wisconsin are particularly suited to the crop, and that the development of labor-saving machinery has made the hemp industry one of far reaching importance.

Several-hundred acres must be grown in a vicinity to make hemp production profitable. Cooperative growing is necessary. The state hemp association is stabilizing the industry in the state.

Wisconsin is the second-largest hemp-producing state in the Union. The principal centers of production are Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Dodge and Racine counties.

Hemp fiber is a national necessity. In addition to its important use for wrapping cords of all kinds, it is now being used for such vital purposes as thread for sewing army shoes and harness, as caulking in battle ships and for binder twine.

Hemp should be grown on fertile soil. Poor soils are not suitable. Hemp is not hard on land, for it removes less plant food than many other farm crops. It improves the physical condition of the soil and is a successful crop for smothering quack grass and Canada thistles.

Fiber hemp does not mature seed in Wisconsin; consequently, seed for planting is principally obtained from Kentucky. The seed weighs 44 pounds to the bushel and 40 pounds are required to plant an acre.

Hemp is drilled in a well-prepared seed bed, in the spring, and requires no further attention until it is ready to harvest in September.

Hemp is harvested with a special harvesting machine which spreads the stalks in a thin windrow. After remaining in the windrow several weeks, the stalks are tied into bundles, shocked, and stacked.

The dry, cured hemp stalks are hauled to a breaking mill. Here the fiber is removed from the woody portion of the stalks. To perform this separation of the fiber, especially constructed and equipped hemp mills are necessary. Wisconsin now has nine of these mills.

Large yields of hemp fiber are obtained in Wisconsin, averaging 1,200 pounds an acre. The cost of producing the crop is from $8 to $11 more an acre than for small-grain crops. The gross returns average $75 an acre. With the advent of modern machinery, hemp can be produced just as easily as corn. Hand labor is no longer necessary and as a result, the hemp industry in Wisconsin is firmly established.

Of the 42,000 acres of hemp grown in the United States in 1917, Wisconsin grew 7,000. Among the several states growing hemp, Wisconsin ranks second in acreage and production in fiber.

Large areas in Wisconsin are admirably suited to hemp culture, and a firmly established dairy industry helps to insure the continued productiveness of the soil.

The climate of Wisconsin is particularly suited to the production of dewretted fiber of good strength and high quality. The fall months are cool and moist, which makes it possible to ret the crop without scorching or over-retting, an item of vital importance in the production of good fiber.

The yields of fiber obtained in this state have been entirely satisfactory, ranging from 1,000 to over 1,500 pounds to the acre; the quality of Wisconsin’s hemp fiber is equal to that produced in any other state and our farmers have received profitable returns from the culture of the crop.

In the improvement of machinery for handling the crop one of the most serious problems of the industry is being solved. Hand labor is now unnecessary in handling Wisconsin’s hemp crop. It is harvested by special machinery, and especially constructed and equipped mills are established in the state for separating the fiber from the stalks. In fact, Wisconsin now has more than 70 percent of the total number of hemp mills in the United States.

Hemp has been demonstrated to be the best smother crop for assisting in the eradication of quack grass and Canada thistles.


In 1908 six acres were grown on the asylum farm at Mendota and three acres on the prison farm at Waupun by the Agronomy Department of the Wisconsin Experiment Station in cooperation with the Office of Fiber Investigations of the United States Department of Agriculture. The results were so promising that the investigational work was rapidly increased during 1909, 1910 and 1911. During those years fields were grown at Mendota, Waupun and Viroqua. At each of these points good results were obtained. At Waupun in 1911 the hemp was grown on land badly infested with quack grass, and in spite of an unfavorable season a yield of 2,100 pounds of fiber to the acre was obtained, and the quack grass was practically destroyed. The results were so encouraging that several neighboring farmers became interested, and in 1912 grew a total of 125 acres. Since that time hemp has been grown in that vicinity every year as a commercial crop. During the last few years, the industry extended chiefly from Waupun to Brandon and westward through the region between Fairwater and Markesan.

To prove that hemp could be grown in Wisconsin was an important undertaking, but the great problem was to obtain power machinery in order that hand methods could be eliminated. When the work with hemp was begun in Wisconsin, there were no satisfactory machines for harvesting, spreading, binding, or breaking. All of these processes were performed by hand. Due to such methods, the hemp industry in the United States had all but disappeared. As it was realized from the very beginning of the work in Wisconsin that no permanent progress could be made so long as it was necessary to depend upon hand labor, immediate attention was given to solving the problem of power machinery. Nearly every kind of hemp machine was studied and tested. The obstacles were great, but through the cooperation of experienced hemp men and one large harvesting machinery company, this problem has been nearly solved. The hemp crop can now be handled entirely by machinery.

Hemp is now of firm footing in Wisconsin; the big obstacles have been overcome, but the final success of the new industry depends upon the kind of judgment used in its further development.


The production of hemp fiber is an item of vital importance in carrying on the work toward winning the war. Wisconsin is at the present time the most promising state for the further development of this industry.

Wisconsin hemp is now used in sewing the shoes worn by American soldiers, and hemp fiber is at the present time the only suitable fiber available in sufficient quantities for this purpose. It is also used as cordage in ship building, and hemp tow is the best available material for calking vessels. During the coming year hemp will be used in the manufacture of binder twine and to eke out the scant supply of jute for covering cotton bales. – L. H. Dewey, Fiber Investigations, United States Department of Agriculture.


Community interest is essential to the successful production of hemp. One farmer in a community, without the cooperation of his neighbors, will fail if he attempts to grow hemp. Machinery for handling the crop is expensive, and without machinery little or nothing can be accomplished. In this state central breaking mills are necessary. These mills cost from $10,000 to more than $50,000, depending upon the capacity and equipment. Of course a sufficient acreage must be grown in a community to justify the erection of such a mill. The first year there should be at least 300 acres with reasonable assurance of from 500 to 750 acres in successive years. This means that the production of hemp must be concentrated in definite centers, to give assurance of sufficient raw material to make the operation of mills profitable.

The stable growth which the hemp industry has made in Wisconsin is due considerably to organized effort. At the very beginning of the industry at Waupun, an organization known as the Rock River Hemp Growers’ association was formed. This association was considerably responsible for guiding the new industry through the experimental stage. After the crop expanded and became of state-wide importance, a state association was formed. This association is known as the Wisconsin Hemp Order. It was organized at Ripon on October 18, 1917, and is affiliated with the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Association. The object of the Hemp Order is to promote the general welfare of the hemp industry in the state. Its membership is composed of hemp growers and hemp mill operators. Anyone in the state interested in the growing and handling of hemp is eligible to membership.

In Wisconsin hemp is grown chiefly on the dark prairie loams and, to some extent, on the gray silt loams of the timbered sections. The leading hemp-producing counties are now Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Dodge and Racine. The principal towns around which hemp is now grown are Waupun, Brandon, Fairwater, Markesan, Iron Ridge, Union Grove, Picketts and Milton. Small acreages were grown in 1917 at Waterloo, Brownsville, Randolph, Fond du Lac, Oak Center, Oak Grove and Baldwin.

In the United States, previous to the Civil War, the chief centers of hemp production were Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois. From the close of the Civil War until 1912, nearly all the hemp in the United States was grown in Kentucky. At the present time (1918), hemp is grown for fiber in Kentucky, Wisconsin, California, North Dakota, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, South Dakota, Michigan, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois. Of these states the most important are Kentucky, Wisconsin and California.

Hemp is adapted to the humid sections of the temperate zones, but certain varieties, such as the birdseed forms, grow extensively rather far north in Russia and mature in 60 to 90 days. Hemp for seed requires approximately five months of favorable weather to mature, which necessitates a growing season of 175 days or more. Hemp for fiber will mature in four months, which means that so far as length of season is concerned, hemp for fiber can be grown practically anywhere in the United States.

Hemp is grown to some extent in semitropical regions for oil or drugs, but its natural habitat is in regions of temperate climate, and it is not grown for fiber outside of the temperate zone.

Humid conditions are necessary for the production of hemp fiber. Seed can be matured to some extent in regions of sparse rainfall, but the regions in the United States where hemp has been successfully grown for fiber have a rainfall of 30 inches or more annually.

The climate in Wisconsin is ideal for the production of dewretted hemp. The falls are cool and fairly moist so that the green hemp can be spread out for retting as soon as it is harvested without any danger of its being scorched or otherwise injured by the sun. As a result, when reasonably well handled, Wisconsin fiber is generally soft and pliable, and possesses considerable “nature,” and it has been in great demand among manufactures.


On fertile soils, hemp is the best smother crop for all kinds of weeds. Wherever hemp has been grown in America it has left the soil freer from weeds than has any other crop. In Wisconsin hemp has proved to be the most satisfactory smother crop for quack grass and Canada thistles. Early experiments that showed the value of hemp as a smother crop led Wisconsin farmers to grow it on a commercial scale. A large acreage is still seeded to hemp each year on soils infested with quack grass and Canada thistles.

Too many people have the idea that land infested with quack or thistles can be plowed in the spring, harrowed, and seeded to hemp, and that the hemp will entirely destroy these weeds. In very favorable seasons, and under the best conditions, quack and thistles might be overcome by such a method, but experience has shown repeatedly that hemp planted on quack grass or Canada thistle land where no attention has previously been paid to subduing these weeds, will fail both to smother out the weeds and to produce a satisfactory growth of hemp. It is highly important, therefore, that soils that are so infested be prepared properly.

Weed infested lands should be plowed in July or August of the year preceding the planting of hemp. The plowed land should be cultivated with the spring-tooth harrow every week until further growth of the weeds is prevented by the freezing of the soil. If there are many loosened roots, remove them with the hayrake, leave them in windrows, and burn them.

Use heavy applications of well-rotted manure, plowed under in the fall or as a top-dressing in the spring. Early in the spring the soil should be worked into a good seed bed, and if quack and thistles appear, they should be thoroughly subdued with a good sharp disk. If necessary, follow the disk with a spring-tooth harrow. Keep the weeds down to the very time the hemp is seeded. If the spring is cold and wet it is advisable to delay planting until the soil is sufficiently warm to insure immediate germination of the seed. On such weed infested land, seeding can be delayed until the first of June, though ordinarily earlier planting is preferable.


Though hemp escapes from cultivation and occasionally appears from year to year as a volunteer plant, it does not become a weed. It may continue to grow in fence corners, roadsides, and other waste places, but it seldom, if ever, persists in cultivated fields.

Wisconsin hemp is, as yet, entirely free from attacks by insects and diseases. Not one report of injuries to the crop from insects or plant diseases has been received. The chief enemy to hemp in Kentucky is a parasitic plant known as the “branched broom rape,” but this parasite has not appeared in Wisconsin.

Outside of the United States hemp is still harvested by hand, and until the last few years hand harvesting has been generally practiced in America. Even now much of the Kentucky crop is harvested … with a hand hemp-hook. Several machines have been devised for harvesting the crop, but the first successful machine and the only one considerably used previous to 1917 was the self-rake reaper. This machine does very satisfactory work, but it leaves the stalks in bundles or gavels which must be spread out by hand in thin layers or swaths. In 1917 a machine especially devised for harvesting hemp was placed on the market. This machine not only cuts hemp, but spreads it at the same time, leaving the stalks in an even swath. The work is done much better than by hand as the butts are more even and there is less crossing and tangling of the stalks. As an experimental machine it has done exceptionally well, and there is no question but that it will be widely used and will be a great factor in placing the hemp industry on a permanent basis.

POWER BRAKES. The great problem of breaking hemp in Wisconsin is now practically solved. Power brakes are established and doing very satisfactory work.

The first successful brake tested in this state has been used for several years by the Rock River Hemp Mills at Waupun. It was originally intended as a portable machine, but the idea of moving it from one farm to another has been given up and for the last two years it has been housed in a breaking mill, to which the hemp stalks are hauled.

The majority of the breaking machines now in use in Wisconsin are of the fluted roller type.

Another type of brake is now being tried out near Brandon. The breaking is done by means of fluted rolls, but instead of the stalks being fed end-wise, as in the case of the other fluted roller machines, they are fed to the rolls at an angle and by means of a specially devised feeding table. This machine has much promise but is still in the experimental stage. Many other types of brakes have been tested in this and other states, but thus far they have not proved to be as satisfactory as the fluted roll brakes.

Previous to the last few years, all dewretted hemp has been broken out in the field with portable hand or power brakes. Such a method necessitated little or no hauling. Under the modern plan of central plants which house the breaking machinery, it is necessary to haul the retted and cured stalks over distances varying from less than a mile to several miles. Just how far hemp can be hauled profitably will depend upon the condition of the roads and the price obtained. Generally speaking, two horses will draw from 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of cured stalks, which represents the yield of one-half acre of average hemp. If the roads are reasonably good, hemp can be hauled profitably as far as five to seven miles. In Wisconsin it has sometimes been hauled ten miles.

Hauling is by no means as expensive as it is generally thought to be, and it is certainly better to draw the stalks several miles and deliver them to a central breaking plant than to break them in the field with portable machines and undergo the long delays which invariably result from unfavorable weather.

The great advance made in the production of rough hemp fiber has come largely as a result of the development of the central breaking mill. The several mills now operating in this and other states have been very successful and there is every reason to believe that the principle of breaking hemp in fully equipped plants is correct, and that it marks permanent progress in the development of the hemp industry.

The modern hemp mills, several of which are now established in Wisconsin, consist of a receiving room, dry kilns, breaking room with brakes, scutchers and balers, boiler room, and engine and fan room. The receiving room is not only used for receiving the stalks but is generally used for storing sufficient hemp stalks to insure continuous operation of the mill during periods of unfavorable weather which prevent the delivery of stalks from fields and stack yards.

From the receiving room the stalks are conducted through the dry kilns, where the excess moisture is removed by means of a hot air blast. The thoroughly dried stalks are then fed to the breaking rolls where they are reduced to a crushed mass. This mass of broken stalks passes over a series of shakers by which most of the loose hurds are separated from the fiber, and is then conducted between the scutching wheels for more complete removal of hurds.

The fiber, which is then fairly clean, is twisted into coarse hands and baled. The baled fiber is the final product of the hemp mill and is known commercially as rough fiber. As such it is sold to cordage and spinning mills.

Hemp breaking mills are now in operation in Wisconsin at Waupun, Alto, Brandon, Fairwater (2 mills), Markesan (2 mills), Union Grove, and Iron Ridge. Arrangements have been made for erecting others at Milton, and Picketts.

Outside of Wisconsin there are but seven fully equipped and successfully operating mills. Wisconsin has, therefore, more hemp mills than all the other states combined.

After hemp stalks are dried and broken the woody part, called hurds, must be separated from the fiber; this process is called scutching. Before modern power brakes were used, all scutching was done by hand; the stalks were broken and uncleaned fiber whipped over the brake and shaken until it was free from hurds.

In Wisconsin, where machine brakes are used, the cleaning is done with power scutchers. These scutchers consist of from two to four large cylinders, on the outside surface of which there are wooden slats. The cylinders are stationary and revolve toward each other. The uncleaned fiber is conducted between these wheels and held firmly in the center by means of a clamp-conveyor. As the fiber passes between the scutching cylinders the hurds are combed out. A device for off-setting the hemp in the clamp-conveyor is necessary to clean the middle portion of the fiber, and scutchers with such a device are now successfully used.

The yields of hemp in Wisconsin have been good. The average of the state for the last several years has been higher than the average yields of Kentucky and equal to those obtained in any other state except California.

The yields of rough fiber in Wisconsin have usually ranged from 800 to 1,400 pounds to the acre. The average for the state in 1916 was estimated at 1,200 pounds and yields of as high as 2,100 pounds are on record. In 1917 a considerable acreage was planted on unsuitable soil, which reduced the average for the state to 1,100 pounds. Good yields have always been obtained in Wisconsin wherever the crop was planted on fertile and well-prepared soil.

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Hemp shocks wait in a field for processing, date unknown, near the village of Brandon in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin.

Workers harvest hemp about 1917 with a Mogul 10-20 tractor and a hemp harvester. -- International Harvester collection

Stock piles shown are being built in 1943 for Matt Rens Hemp Company for a mill located on a 120-acre farm near Brandon, Wisconsin. The company operates two mills and has been producing hemp fiber for a number of years. It is being used mostly in the manufacture of thread ... The Farmall H shown is one of four Farmall tractors operated by the Matt Rens Hemp Company.

A woman feeds hemp stalks into a crusher for rope production, Oct. 6, 1944, during World War II, in the village of Deforest in Dane County, Wisconsin. Photographer Arthur M. Vinje

A group of men and a young boy are breaking hemp April 21, 1911, at the Brigham farm near Blue Mounds in Dane County, Wisconsin. Paul Vanderbilt collection

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