PRINCETON – Industrial hemp is poised to make a comeback in Illinois – a bill that lifts prohibitions on its production has been on the governor’s desk a month, and word is he’ll sign it this month, during the Illinois State Fair.
That the Industrial Hemp Act has gotten this far is at least partly due to the efforts of one passionate first-generation Princeton farmer and environmentalist.
Hemp is a form of the cannabis plant, but unlike marijuana, it does not produce mind-altering effects. Still, it was banned nationwide in 1937 for its relation to the marijuana plant.
Rachel Berry, 29, has been advocating for the commercial use of hemp for several years. She helped found the Illinois Industrial Hemp Association in November, and has been blogging, reaching out to lawmakers, attending conferences, and educating people about its benefits and what it can do to improve the state’s economy.
Hemp can be used for industrial textiles – such as rope, canvas and netting – and commercial textiles – think clothing, denim, shoes and fine fabrics. It can be manufactured into building materials such as fiberboard, insulation and acrylics, and used for paper products, cosmetics and even foods – people can consume hemp seed hearts, seed oil, hemp protein power and supplements.
For farmers, it’s a great rotation crop, it needs little water and grows well in marginal soil with no pesticides or herbicides – in fact, it can boost the quality of the soil – it prevents topsoil erosion, makes for nutritious animal feed and economical bedding, and farmers who grow it usually can utilize the equipment they already own.
Rebecca Osland, with the pro-farming Illinois Stewardship Alliance, which favors the bill, has said hemp can add hundreds of new jobs and up to $100 million in state revenue.
Born and raised in Cook County, Berry once considered herself a “suburb kid.” Farming was not on her radar until she and her husband became stewards of Hedgebote, a 13-acre family farm northwest of Princeton.
Berry jumped in feet-first. She stumbled across hemp while researching everything she could about chemical-free agriculture. She was attracted to its ability to clean soil and water, to help reduce erosion, and to the fact that it needs no pesticides or herbicides to maintain it.
But what really jump-started her advocacy was when she heard local officials talk about how the Environmental Protection Agency was coming down harder than ever on farmers who apply nitrogen and phosphorus to fields.
The fertilizers wash into the Mississippi River and on into the Gulf of Mexico, where they eat oxygen needed for fish to survive. That’s created a “dead zone” estimated to be as large as the state of New Jersey.
If more farmers took a chance on hemp, Berry said, it could help alleviate environmental issues, while providing farmers all kinds of economic benefits.
In her excitement, she reached out to Vote Hemp, whose members put her in touch with a robust group of like-minded folks who formed the Illinois Industrial Hemp Association.
Berry also reached out to lawmakers, including state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, state Sens. Chuck Weaver, R-Peoria, and Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, who introduced the bill, and to state Rep. Dan Swanson, R-Alpha, who was very familiar with industrial hemp – his grandfather grew it before it was prohibited.
“Overall, I’ve had bipartisan support from all the representatives I’ve spoken with,” she said.
She’s lobbied for hemp in Springfield earlier this year, attended conferences, and has networked with various organizations and alliances that have lent their support.
Of course, Berry has been challenged by skeptics unsure about the idea of legalizing cannabis’ cousin.
One of the most common concerns opponents have is people growing marijuana in the middle of hemp fields.
“If you know anything about botany, a cannabis plant would not thrive in an open field surrounded by hemp,” Berry said. “The cannabis plant needs to be pollinated a certain way, and if it was left to be open-pollinated in the air, it would not grow.”
Opponents also argue that police will have a difficult time telling the difference between a cannabis plant and a hemp plant.
With just a little education, that’s not so, Berry said.
Once if the bill is signed, Berry’s mission isn’t complete. She’ll continue to advocate, and to work to make sure fair rules and regulations are implemented for licenses, and to spread the word about the “endless opportunities” industrial hemp can provide local farmers and Illinois businesses.
Berry’s passionate fight to legalize hemp also has been personally empowering.
As a teen mother, she quickly learned that people’s expectations for her became “really, really low.”
“And now I’ve never felt so empowered, doing this for myself, and showing my children if you want to see change, this is how you do it.
You use your arts and the skills you have and you get out there and make it happen.”
TO LEARN MORE
Read the full text and follow the progress of the Industrial Hemp Act by going to ilga.gov and searching for SB 2298.
You can follow Rachel Berry on Facebook, and learn more about hemp, by searching for Women's Hemp Alliance.