Rural Princeton woman advocates to end prohibition
PRINCETON — Illinois lawmakers recently passed a bill to lift the prohibitions on the production of industrial hemp. The bill is now on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk, and many believe he will sign it in August on Ag Day during the Illinois State Fair in Springfield.
In Bureau County, one local woman has been instrumental in getting this legislation passed. Rachel Berry of rural Princeton has been advocating for industrial hemp for the past few years.
The 29-year-old helped to form the Illinois Industrial Hemp Alliance last November and has been blogging, reaching out to lawmakers, attending conferences, and educating people on the benefits of hemp and what it could do to improve the Illinois economy.
Born and raised in Cook County, Berry once considered herself a “suburb kid.” Farming was not on her radar until an opportunity arose for her and her husband to become land stewards of a 13-acre farm northwest of Princeton.
Berry jumped at the opportunity and dived into the study of agriculture. What she knows today was because of research she’s done on her own. While her husband works on projects on the farm, she considers herself the sole farmer of their land.
“As a woman and growing our own food — it feels so right,” she said.
With an environmentalist mindset, Berry began researching chemical-free methods for her land and stumbled upon the hemp plant. She was attracted to its ability to clean soil and water, help reduce erosion, and give farmers a crop where no pesticides or herbicides were needed to maintain it.
But what really jump-started her advocacy for hemp was when she heard local officials talk about agricultural practices being the cause for a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
She said in a meeting held in Princeton, it was said that the Environmental Protection Agency was coming down harder than ever on farmers who apply nitrogen and phosphorus to fields, only to have it wash into the Mississippi River and flow into the Gulf of Mexico.
The fertilizers have eliminated the oxygen needed for fish to survive in those Gulf waters. The “dead zone” is estimated to be as large as the state of New Jersey.
Berry believes if more farmers took a chance on hemp, it could alleviate the environmental issues that have the potential to make a dent in the U.S. economy.
After she reached out to the organization, Vote Hemp, members got her in touch with a robust group, which eventually became know as the Illinois Industrial Hemp Alliance.
Berry also reached out to lawmakers, including state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, state Sen. Chuck Weaver, state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, who introduced the bill, and state Rep. Dan Swanson, who was very familiar with industrial hemp as he shared with her that his grandfather had once grown it before it was prohibited.
“Overall, I’ve had bipartisan support from all the representatives I’ve spoken with,” she said.
She’s also lobbied for hemp in Springfield earlier this year, attended conferences, and has networked with various organizations and alliances who’ve gotten on board with the support for industrial hemp.
Of course, Berry has been challenged by skeptics unsure about the idea of legalizing a plant that comes from the same classification as cannabis. She said one of the most common arguments she hears is that people will grow cannabis plants 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. ... 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,” she said.
Also, people argue that police officers will have a difficult time telling the difference between a cannabis and hemp plant. Berry’s response to that is, it would take only a little education for officers to be able to identify those differences.
Once the bill is signed, hopefully this summer, Berry said her work isn’t over. There will still be efforts made to ensure fair rules and regulations are implemented for licenses. Also, there is still a lot of education and research to be shared so others become more aware of the opportunities industrial hemp can provide for local farmers and Illinois businesses.
“The opportunities for what people can grow their hemp for are endless,” she said.
Hemp can be used for industrial textiles like rope, canvas and netting. It can be used for textiles, such as clothing, denim, shoes and fine fabrics.
Hemp can be manufactured into building materials such as fiberboard, insulation and acrylics. It can also be used for paper products and even cosmetics and foods. People consume hemp seed hearts, seed oil, hemp protein power and supplements.
Berry’s passion for hemp has not only excited others about its potential, but the fight to legalize it has also empowered her. At one time, Berry was a teen mother who quickly learned that people’s expectations for her became “really, really low.”
“It’s not a secret, you can feel it. ... To be a teen mother in this society — that is something to struggle against,” she said.
“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.”