A Plant from our Past

Written by  Vittorio Emiliani
Hemp makes its return to the countryside around Ferrara.
Hemp is back. This green plant, which was part of our daily life and a feature of the countryside in many regions for millennia, has almost completely disappeared since the 1960s.

In the 1950s, hemp (of the industrial variety, cannabis sativa) was still strongly rooted in the agriculture of this well-drained plain, which for months on end presented an vista broken only by the odd avenue of poplars in the distance. Here grain and sugar beet accounted for the vast majority of plantings.

In late summer, this typical Po valley landscape would become a patchwork of intense green: it was the hemp, growing ever higher, up to four or five metres from the ground, creating the illusion of a wood, but one soon to be cut down.

This operation took place annually in September and involved an army of farmhands, mostly women, who would arrive by bicycle, enter the dense plantation armed with sickles and scythes, wearing heavy woollen clothes with hats and big headscarves even in the sweltering heat and humidity in order to keep out the hard fibrous stems and to try to avoid injury. Then the piles of painstakingly harvested plants were lowered into hundreds of ditches full of water, the maceri, and held under with big stones to soak until ready for drying and defibration, once done manually using wooden brakes.

Then, in the late summer heat, those who lived near the maceri had to undergo a double torment: the unbearable stench of the by now rotting hemp plants and the clouds of giant mosquitoes that swarmed out of that sort of wood that had fallen in a few days to sickle and saw.
In the first three decades of the twentieth century, Italy lay second behind only Russia in hemp production, with nearly 80,000 hectares planted and almost 80,000 tons produced. In 1914, the province of Ferrara was the national leader, with around 30,000 hectares under cultivation to produce 36,300 tons of hemp, followed by the provinces of Caserta (15,700 tons), Bologna (14,500 tons), and Naples (8900 tons).

Until early in the twentieth century, hemp was grown in places all over Italy, even in the lower hills: in Romagna and the Marche, and particularly in Tuscany, around Siena. It was grown for local use in the countryside and for hand-woven products which, although of high quality, were rarely sold beyond the local market. Hemp was introduced to Italy in distant times, between the tenth and eighth centuries BC, and gradually grew in importance, as shown by contemporary documents, particularly during the Renaissance.

The economic boom of the 1960s brought with it other trades less penurious and insecure than that of the agricultural labourer, while there was increasing use of artificial fibres rather than natural ones such as hemp and the flax. These were black days for the crop. In the Ferrara area there was an explosion in fruit-growing, already widespread in the Romagna and around Modena (Cesena and Vignola).
However, hemp is tough stuff, and forty years on it is back. This dates from 1997, when the first experimental research work started in Ferrara in search of new uses. The promoting committee - coordinated by the Provincial government and supported by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio, the Cassa di Risparmio, the Chamber of Commerce, the municipalities of Ostellato and Comacchio, Ecocanapa and Canapa Italia - have set up a range of projects dealing with: research on the most appropriate seed types, cost-saving technologies - costs hitherto have become prohibitive - for primary processing and improvements to secondary processing, on environmental conditions typical of our area and hence on the most locally suitable types of seed.

In the interim, a direct link has been set up between the agro-industrial companies working on relaunching hemp and the high fashion sector. In May 2001, the Ferrara province official responsible, Gabriele Ghetti, announced that a first new factory, entirely private, was to be opened at Comacchio: Ecocanapa, handling the scutching and hackling of the plant, a joint venture by Sorgeva and Consorzio Canapaitalia, set up to handle "production extending over AT least 1,500 hectares".

The uses of hemp seeds and the fibrous plant that grows from them, growing up to five metres tall in just four or five months, are many and varied. Firstly, for paper, thus avoiding or reducing the felling trees, stimulating innovation in an industry like Italian papermaking, already highly advanced. It is calculated that this plant can be the source of more than fifty thousand products including textiles and paper, cosmetics (oils and soaps) and food, herbal products and pharmaceuticals, environmentally friendly construction materials, animal raising, and upholstery for furniture.