Are Industrial Hemp and Marijuana the Same Thing?

Although industrial hemp and marijuana both belong to the same plant family, Cannabis, they are quite different. Industrial Hemp is one of the oldest known domesticated plants, and contains less than 0.3% THC or less, so you can’t get “high” from hemp. Hemp is extremely versatile and multi-purpose, and it’s many uses include the manufacture of rope, clothing, biodegradable plastics, construction materials and the production of feed

Is Hemp Agriculture Something New?

Industrial hemp farming dates back as far as 10,000 years ago in, originating in Asia and the Middle East, where hemp was used to make paper, rope, pottery and food. It’s use soon spread to Europe, and the New World. In early United States history, colonists were required by law to grew hemp for making rope, oil, clothing and sailcloth. (2)

Is Hemp Legal in the United States?

Since the 1930’s, federal law did not differentiate hemp from other cannabis plants, and all were labeled as illegal in 1937 under the Marijuana Tax Act, and later in 1970, cannabis was banned under the Controlled Substances Act. Today, hemp is legal in the US thanks to the 2018 Agricultural Improvement Act, or Farm Bill. The bill states that industrial hemp cannot contain more than 0.3% (the average THC percentage of recreational marijuana runs around 4%), and also places several state-federal shared regulations on it’s cultivation, production and distribution. (3)

I Heard that Hemp Needs a lot of Water to get Established. Is That True?

Hemp does require at least 20-30 inches of rainfall during it’s initial growing-period of six weeks, and irrigation is recommended in drier climates. Studies have shown that water absorption increases daily until flowering starts, then water requirements drop significantly until late flowering and seed formation. Studies have also shown that Hemp needs twice as much water in light soil (sandy, or silty soil) than in medium soils (clay, sand, silt and loam), and that 80-130 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 g of dry fiber. (4, 5)

What are the Environmental Benefits of Growing Hemp?

Studies have shown that hemp needs little fertilizer, is pest-resistant (and as a result requires minimal pesticide use), and according to a 2005 Report by the Stockholm Environment Institute uses 50% less water than cotton. 6. Hemp grows very fast, and can reach a height of 20 feet in 100 days, and it’s rapid growth can maximize crop yields and offer farmers up to four cuttings per growing season. Another added bonus for growing hemp in arid western states such as New Mexico, Texas and Arizona, is hemp is one of the most drought-tolerant crops on earth. (7, 12)

What are the Economic Benefits of Growing Hemp?

Hemp is a relatively simple crop to grow and it has a multitude of uses, with some sources stating that 25,000 different products can be created from hemp. (8) The 2016 US market for hemp products was estimated at $688 million which included foods, bio-fuel production, paper, livestock feed, textiles, nutritional supplements, industrial and construction uses, personal care products, and of course CBD. (9). In 2017, the US industrial hemp industry produced at least $600 million in revenues, with a projected annual growth rate of 14% through 2022). (10)

What are the Obstacles to Growing Hemp?

Although hemp is eco-friendly, multi-purpose, and a budding billion dollar industry, there are some things for producers to consider: 

  • First, hemp is a crop most suited for industrial use, and you need a lot of land for it to make it worth your while (at least 50 acres or more), so it doesn’t make sense for hobby-gardeners or farmer’s markets.  

  • “Red tape.”  There are a lot of legal and regulatory issues at both the federal and state levels with producing hemp, and states require licensing to grow hemp, which means paper-work and fees.  Some states require background checks, and most require annual testing of the THC content of the plants to make sure that the legal limit is not exceeded.

  • Seed can be hard to find, but this issue is improving.  Hemp growers are required to plant seed that has been certified for low THC content (0.3% or less), but the seed industry lags behind the demand and there are potential complications with the federal government especially when shipping seeds across state lines.  The challenge is the 0.3% THC limit. Canada and Europe produce a lot of seed outside of the US, but it is unknown if these seeds can acclimate to the varying ecosystems in the US, and if the seeds are within the required THC limit. If a hemp crop is above the 0.3% limit, then under law it is classified as marijuana, and may be destroyed. (13)

  • Finding the right machinery.  Most commercial farm machinery will work fine for hemp cultivation, but given that hemp tends to be a very fibrous and bushy plant, producers may need to develop modifications to prevent clogging of machinery.  The development and marketing of special machinery needed for the prevention of hemp stalks clogging machinery is becoming more readily available in most states that cultivate hemp. Hemp producers may also opt to contract with processing companies who can process the raw plant material for them. (11)

Are There Federal or State Programs that can help Hemp Farmers?

This year, 2020, hemp producers may be eligible for FSA (USDA Farm Service Agency) farm loans, that include beginning farmer, operating, ownership, and farm storage facility loans. More information is available on the USDA website. Also, the Whole-Farm Revenue Protection and Multi-Peril Crop Insurance coverage offers several insurance coverage options under one policy, and the FSA’s Non-insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program provides several coverage options for eligible farmers. (14, 15)


1.  Small, E. and D. Marcus. 2002. Hemp: A new crop with new uses for North America. p. 284–326. In: J. Janick and A. Whipkey (eds.), Trends in new crops and new uses. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.


2.  The Thistle. Volume 13, Number 2: Sept/Oct 2000.  The People’s History, https://www.mit.edu/~thistle/v13/2/history.html.


3.  The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018.  https://www.usda.gov/topics/hemp.


4. Nelson, Robert A.  2000. Hemp Husbandry, https://www.hempbasics.com/hhusb/hh2cul.htm#HH23.

5. USDA Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1935, http://www.industrialhemp.net/pdf/USDA_Bulletin_1935.pdf.

6. Cherrett, N., Barrett, J., Clemett, A., Chadwick, M. and Chadwick, M. J. (2005). Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester. Report prepared for and reviewed by BioRegional Development Group and World Wide Fund for Nature – Cymru. Stockholm Environment Institute, https://www.sei.org/publications/ecological-footprint-water-analysis-cotton-hemp-polyester/.

8. Johnson, Renée.  10 March 2017. Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity, Congressional Research Service, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32725.pdf.


9.  4/9/2020. 2016 Annual Retail Sales for Hemp Products Estimated at $688 Million. Sec. 7606 of the 2014 Farm Bill – Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research, https://www.votehemp.com/press_releases/2016-annual-retail-sales-hemp-products-estimated-688-million/.


10.  Holt, David, and Steineker, Whitt.  06/27/2019, https://cannabisindustryjournal.com/feature_article/hemp-a-growing-market-ripe-for-protection/.


11.  Brian Barth, 2018.  So You Want to Be a Hemp Farmer?  https://modernfarmer.com/2018/07/so-you-want-to-be-a-hemp-farmer/.

12. Weiser, Matt.  05/11/2018. Hemp Legalization Poised to Transform Agriculture in Arid West. Oceans, News Deeply, https://www.newsdeeply.com/water/articles/2018/05/16/hemp-legalization-poised-to-transform-agriculture-in-arid-west.

13.  Freese, Betsy.  01/17/2019. What Farmers Need to Know About Growing Hemp,  https://www.agriculture.com/news/crops/what-farmers-need-to-know-about-growing-hemp.

14.  Hemp and Farm Programs, https://www.farmers.gov/manage/hemp.

15. USDA.  2020. Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP), https://www.rma.usda.gov/en/Policy-and-Procedure/Insurance-Plans/Whole-Farm-Revenue-Protection.