Growing and Harvesting Hemp
Hemp was planted in mid-April through May in well prepared soil that had been plowed, harrowed and rolled. The growing season was 100 to 120 days.
Hemp grown for seed was treated differently from hemp grown for the fibers or "lint."
Seed hemp was planted first in the very richest soil. Seeds were planted in hills and seedlings were thinned as they grew to about 8"high. They were thinned again as the male plants were identified, with most male plants being removed, leaving only a few for pollination. Often the tops of the female plants were lopped off to create branching and the production of more seed.
Plants were usually ready for harvesting in early September when they were carefully cut down near the ground with hemp hooks and dried. The seed was collected by flailing the stalks on a clean sheet. The chaff was then either blown away or separated from the seed by sifting. The seed was stored for the next year's plants.
Fiber hemp was planted later and seeded more thickly. Stalks grew very tall and close together, thereby preventing the growth of many weeds, causing lower leaves to die off, and creating longer lengths of the desirable fibers. These plants grew 6' to 10' high. These plants, also, were cut down with hemp hooks.
Fiber hemp was left lying in the fields for "dew rotting" so that the gums that caused the fibers in the stalks to adhere to the outer casing would dissolve. After enough rotting had occurred, the stalks were gathered into stacks to dry them out and to await the breaking process that usually began shortly after Christmas.
So-called "hemp breaks" were dragged out in the fields to the stacks, where handfuls of the stalks were repeatedly bashed between the two parts of the break to shatter the outer casing and reveal the desired fibers. Initial cleaning was accomplished by whipping the fibers against the break to knock out remaining bits of the stalk (herds). The fibers were bundled in the field and weighed back at the hemp house. Later they were run through a "hackle," similar to a large and rougher looking carder, to further clean and align the fibers.
The fibers or "lint" were spun into a rough yarn and then either twisted into rope or woven on a simple hand loom into very rough cloth referred to as "bagging."
All these tasks were performed by enslaved African Americans who worked on their owner's plantation or were leased for hemp production. The work was grueling, back-breaking labor, made more unpleasant by the dust and pollen stirred up as the hemp was processed. Many of the hemp workers were reported to have developed awful coughs that took months to go away.
Traditionally in Kentucky, hemp harvesting was assigned as task work to the enslaved African Americans. There were daily quotas for the amount of harvesting to be done and the amount of lint to be processed at the break. These varied depending on the age of the workers. Above and beyond the required amount, slaves were paid a small amount for extra production.
To learn more about Farmington and our agricultural roots, join us for Hemp Discovery Day on April 30, 2016 from 4:00 PM - 9:00 PM to celebrate our hemp heritage and learn about the modern day uses of the crop as we prepare to plant our hemp pilot project this summer.
By: Diane Young, Executive Director