Hemp is ready to emerge as a major industry

In the 1930s, Henry Ford was looking for a way to help farmers survive the Great Depression.

He began experimenting with car parts made partly from a plastic derived from hemp, a common crop at the time. In a famous demonstration, Ford hit a plastic car fender with an ax. The ax head bounced off the fender without damaging it, while a similar blow chopped a nasty gash in a metal car.

Now Bruce Dietzen is picking up where Ford left off. The Florida retiree has built a car with a body and interior made entirely from hemp. The body and frame are made of hemp-based plastics, and the upholstery from hemp fibers. His “Renew” sports car is fueled by ethanol distilled from hemp stalks.

Detroit isn’t likely to go all hemp any time soon, but Dietzen’s imagination shows that hemp can be to the 21st century what petroleum was to the 20th: a basic source of ingredients for everything from shoes to fuel to houses.

Some uses are easy. Hemp fibers already are used to make rope, hats, belts, wallets and shoes. Hemp paper doesn’t yellow the way paper made from pulped trees does. Hemp seeds have been found to be among the richest sources of vegetable protein. Hemp burgers, wieners and other hemp-based foods have made their way to supermarkets’ natural-food aisles.

And, we don’t have to tunnel into the Earth to gather this weed-like bounty. A hemp stalk can grow to 12 feet in 90 days in a wide range of climates, doesn’t need fertilizer, and its canopy of leaves starves weeds of sunlight.

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