The primary object in cultivating hemp was, of course, to obtain the fiber from the stalks. Before a crop could be planted, however, the farmers had to procure a supply of seed. In recent years they have found it possible to purchase seed with a guarantee of its fertility, but earlier each farm produced at least enough to answer its own needs.
The primary object in cultivating hemp in USA, Seed growers
It was considered advisable to plant each year that of recent growth, since it was apt to lose its vitality with age. Usually, unless spread out on a dry floor, during the summer following the year in which it was raised it tended to generate an internal heat which destroyed its power of reproduction. The first step, therefore, in hemp culture was the production of good sound seed in quantities sufficient at least for home use.
In some instances the seed for planting was obtained from the crop grown for fiber, but there was always a dispute regarding its quality. Some farmers held that, since hemp is essentially a wild plant, cultivation was detrimental to it. Others professed to see no difference between crops grown from lint seed (obtained from plants grown primarily for fiber) and from that produced by hemp which had been cultivated solely for its yield of seed. Most farmers preferred the latter.
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At any rate, the plants being grown primarily for fiber ordinarily were harvested before they had fully matured, thus preventing the ripening of most of the seed and causing it to be light in weight and of inferior quality.3 It was therefore found advisable to set aside a small plot of ground for the production of seed alone. Good yields were often obtained from fertile upland fields planted to this crop, but bottom land was as a rule more productive.
The Kentucky River bottoms are especially well suited for this purpose, and it has been said that “in the past most of the hemp seed used in this country has been grown in the narrow strips of alluvial or bottom land along the Kentucky River from High Bridge north about 50 miles.”
Seed growers endeavored to produce large, rugged stalks of hemp with many branches in order to obtain as large a quantity of seed as possible. Consequently, in the uplands they considered the richest soil available best suited to this crop, and that which had been highly manured was thought to be better than newly cleared land, even of the most fertile quality.6 Fields which had been long in grass and pastured by cattle and sheep, or very fertile fields upon which corn had previously been planted, were considered suitable for the purpose. In the lowlands, especially along the Kentucky River, growers generally used no fertilizer because the soil was naturally highly productive.
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The process of cultivation was in many ways similar to that for cotton and corn. The ground was prepared by repeated plowings until thoroughly pulverized, loose, and friable. If grassland were to be used, it was found to be better if broken in the preceding autumn and replowed before planting. After the field was thoroughly prepared, it was laid off in rows about four feet apart, in which the seed, about two quarts per acre, was sown in drills; or, possibly more commonly, it was planted in hills containing seven or eight seeds each.
Early April was usually the season in which this was done. Continual care when the plants were small prevented the growth of grass and weeds, and frequent plowings kept the soil from becoming packed. After the plants had reached a height of six to eight inches, they were thinned, leaving three or four in each hill. Usually thinning was considered essential while the plants were young, but sometimes the process was postponed until the male plants were pulled out.
In either case, after the hemp had grown enough to enable the farmer to distinguish between the male and female stalks, he thinned the former. This task, in the words of Henry Clay, could best be performed “in the blooming season, when the sexual character of the plants is easily discernible; the male alone blossoming, and, when agitated, throwing off farina, a yellow dust or flour which falls and colors the ground, or any object that comes in contact with it.”
By pulling or cutting, workmen eliminated most of the male plants, leaving one every few feet along the row to pollinate the females. After the remaining males had shed their pollen, all of them were removed in order to allow as much space as possible for the seed bearing stalks. Many farmers followed the practice of cutting the tops from the latter before they reached maturity in order to cause them to branch profusely.