George Washington’s hemp farm is back, thanks to growers who want to spread the word about this crop and its history.
If we were to go back in time to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate around 250 years ago, we’d see row upon row of industrial hemp flourishing under the Virginia sun. Washington believed hemp could bring in more profit than tobacco due to its wider variety of uses.
As time progressed and the U.S. banned cannabis growing, Mount Vernon, along with the rest of the country, lost hemp.
Now, with full hemp legalization on the horizon, George Washington’s hemp farm is back. Hemp is once again being harvested at Mount Vernon.
Dean Norton, lead horticulturist at Mount Vernon, partnered with the University of Virginia to bring hemp back. Just like Washington, they see the potential profit in hemp and want to bring attention to the numerous ways it can be used.
“To bring this crop back it just really helps complete our agricultural story,” Norton told NPR.
To understand why George Washington’s hemp is so important, let’s look back at how hemp previously influenced Mount Vernon and the United States.
HEMP HISTORY: GEORGE WASHINGTON’S HEMP EXPERIMENTS BEGAN IN 1760
In the 1760s, Washington explored the profitability of hemp. George Washington’s hemp was used for rope, sail canvas, clothing, and repairing fishing nets (a key necessity for his fishing operations along the Potomac). He had a feeling it could bring in much more money than tobacco. Back then, there were no laws prohibiting growing.
Washington knew hemp could grow in places where other crops withered. He wrote a letter to William Pierce stating, “With this knowledge, I want you to make the most of hemp and plant it everywhere on my farmlands that haven’t been previously reserved for other things on my farming plantation(s).” With that, George Washington’s hemp farm flourished.
During this time, the British Crown also commissioned American farmers to grow hemp. Hemp is highly adaptable and can grow in places that are otherwise left barren. When Washington grew hemp, it would not be surprising if you took a wagon ride down a dirt road only to discover fields of it.
Humans have used hemp as medicine for centuries, but there’s little to no evidence Washington or his contemporaries ever smoked their crop. While both hemp and psychoactive cannabis (‘marijuana’) are forms of the same plant, they’re grown and used in very different ways.
The unfortunate truth is hemp wasn’t as profitable as wheat. The country knew this and so did Washington. Though Washington continued to grow hemp, it wasn’t the sole focus of Mount Vernon.
Hemp remained an important crop until the U.S. banned cannabis in the early 20th century. American hemp became important again during World War II. Otherwise, hemp remained illegal until the 2014 Farm Bill brought it back to America on a limited basis.
HEMP FLASHBACK: GEORGE WASHINGTON’S HEMP IS A SIGN OF A BRIGHT FUTURE
Hemp’s image is so twisted by unnecessary stigma, visitors are startled to see it on Mount Vernon. Tourists now take selfies with George Washington’s hemp. Some gaze in awe at the sight of the plant, with its distinctive leaves.
There’s no doubt Washington would’ve found this a bit ridiculous. But the team involved in growing hemp on Mount Vernon want to end the fear attached to the crop.
Brian Walden, a Virginia hemp advocate, helped petition to bring hemp back to Mount Vernon. He told NPR’s Brakkton Booker that he considers himself a “hemp patriot.”
Walden hopes that bringing hemp back to George Washington’s farm will send “the message across that this is an innocuous plant that has real benefits and our Founding Fathers knew that and they planted it.”
Decades of prohibition have brought ignorance, and required us to fight for legalization, but there’s one benefit to this moment. Hemp has yet to become a commodity crop dominated by corporate agriculture. It’s still accessible to smaller farmers and experimental growers like the Mount Vernon team.
George Washington’s hemp is educating new people about this crop, and aiding the push for total legalization, which could soon become a reality at the federal level.
If one of our country’s most historic properties is benefitting from hemp, why shouldn’t the rest of America?