RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
George Washington - distinguished general, first American president, lover of hemp. He wrote about it in his journal. He called it a cash crop. Washington even used it for rope and netting on his fishing boats. Historians say hemp hasn't been grown on Washington's Mount Vernon estate since he died until now. NPR's Brakkton Booker reports
BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Alongside the corn, cotton and tobacco plants that have been grown here for years, there are now 7-foot-tall stalks of cannabis.
DEAN NORTON: So here we are. We are at the hemp plot. Oh, look at those birds - those stinkers. You see? That's the problem. They want the seed as much as we do.
BOOKER: That's Dean Norton, the director of horticulture at Mount Vernon. Hemp has not been grown here in a really, really long time - centuries even. Back then, Washington's slaves would've tended the land. On this day, Norton shows me the plot. It's only about a thousand square feet.
NORTON: And this is just the sort of thing that makes it all worthwhile - when you can return a historic plant like industrial hemp to Mount Vernon that Washington grew all over his farm.
BOOKER: There's also a smell when you get close. But Norton reminds me and a tourist who came to take a peek that this is industrial hemp, so not the plant you toke, the kind you use for making rope and a host of other products.
NORTON: It is for its use for fiber, food or fuel - not for anything else. We could light a bonfire, sit around and just (inhales). Nothing's going to happen to you. You may turn into rope, but other than that.
BOOKER: Hemp and its famous cousin Mary Jane are both forms of cannabis. Hemp, though, has only trace amounts of THC, the chemical compound in marijuana that causes the high. That fact didn't stop the federal government from cracking down on the harvesting of the crop starting in the 1930s. By 1970, it was listed as a Schedule 1 illegal drug.
BRIAN WALDEN: It's been two generations that we last grew hemp.
BOOKER: Brian Walden is a farmer in Charlottesville, Va.
WALDEN: That means it's lost from the general population's knowledge or memory.
BOOKER: It was his idea to reintroduce hemp at Mount Vernon, an idea that was possible due to a provision in the 2014 Farm Bill allowing states to harvest the crop in limited supply for research purposes only. But still, it took years to convince Mount Vernon. Walden, a self-proclaimed hemp patriot, had two big reasons for doing this. The first, to give hemp a very public image makeover.
WALDEN: And getting the message across that this is an innocuous plant that has real benefits. And our founding fathers knew that, and they planted it.
BOOKER: The second, to show lawmakers in Washington that its production in the U.S. could be a viable crop for farmers.
WALDEN: The few restrictions that are currently in place federally are holding back the industry.
BOOKER: Some members of Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have thrown their support behind hemp. The Farm Bill is up for renewal this year, and it's possible that in it, Congress could legalize industrial hemp.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEMP STALKS SNAPPING)
BOOKER: Back at Mount Vernon, historic re-enactors take freshly sharpened sickles to the tall stalks of hemp. It will be dried for a few weeks, then used in fiber-making demonstrations for the public. Dean Norton, the head of horticulture, says he's proud Mount Vernon played a role in helping to teach the public, and perhaps politicians, about the benefits of hemp.
NORTON: They're starting to free it up. They're starting to get a better definition of the difference between marijuana and industrial hemp.
BOOKER: Norton says it's all part of the education process. And in the coming weeks, lawmakers are expected to hash out their differences in the Farm Bill. Brakkton Booker, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.