Dec 1, 2021
UVM Extension: Is Fiber Hemp the Future?

This past growing season we at UVM Extension Northwest Crops and Soils (NWCS) planted 13 fiber and dual-purpose varieties of Hemp at Borderview Research Farm in Alburgh, Vermont as part of our Hemp fiber variety trial. The seeds were sown in early June 2021 and two harvest dates were set for late August and early September to obtain data at a variety of stages in the lifecycle. After each harvest, fiber was retted one of two ways: Field retting is a process in which the hemp is cut and left on the ground to grow bacteria that break down the pectin layer binding the bast fiber (outermost layer of the stalk) to the hurd (woody core of the stalk). Water retting is a process where plant bundles are submerged in water to achieve the same. Subsamples of each variety underwent both retting practices for quality comparison.

Field retted bundles drying before storing
Field retted bundles drying before storing.

After the small feats of retting were completed came the more daunting task of getting the retted samples processed into workable fiber. In 2021 America, we have become accustomed to a certain ease around manufacturing products that simply doesn’t exist for hemp. In a nation where growing industrial fiber hemp was once mandated to keep up with development and war, currently there is not a single long staple fiber mill to speak of. “Long staple” refers to the length of fibers belonging to bast fiber plants like hemp and flax. After NAFTA and CAFTA were implemented in the 1990s, the majority of textile manufacturing and other non-perishable industries were moved overseas where they could be done at a lower price point, and U.S. mills and dye houses subsequently closed.

Lucky for us, living in a small state with a rich textile history has its perks. Antique milling equipment belonging to the historic Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, Vermont was generously lent to us for our research. A good bit of the fiber was processed manually this way, yielding beautiful horsehair-like sliver for spinning, while the rest awaits processing with the aid of electricity at a mini mill in Nova Scotia (our closest option) this winter. Stay subscribed to our blog to follow along with this fibershed project as it unfurls in the coming seasons, and as more fiber hemp research is published by the NWCS team. Ambitions have been laid for fun events and educational opportunities surrounding growing and processing fiber domestically.

Hemp on the flax break from the Old Stone House Museum
Hemp on the flax break from the Old Stone House Museum.

Through our research we aim to carve a trail into the modern era that bypasses the perils of the current fast fashion model where clothes are treated as disposable, while consisting of the least “disposable” materials on the planet. If there is anything that you, reader, take away from this post let it be this: clothing is agriculture. It is revolutionary to grow and support local fiber because it is to believe in an alternative future where humans work symbiotically with nature instead of in spite of it. When our clothing comes from the soil, it can return to the soil, thus, building soil. When we build soil, we sink carbon. If we can achieve this goal of a closed-loop-clothing system on our research farm, then we will be able to better help farmers in our region to do the same. In an era of climate breakdown, fiber farming could offer Vermonters a lot to be hopeful about.

— Laura Sullivan, founder of Pipedream Hempworks and research technician at the University of Vermont Extension Northwest Crops and Soils Program; Photo at top: UVM Extension NWCS Hemp Fiber Variety Trial, Borderview Research Farm, Alburgh, VT, 2021.

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