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Field of opportunity

Posted on March 1, 1999

Legal again after 60 years, hemp farming makes a comeback.

It’s May 1998 in southwestern Ontario and the sun has been shining warm and hard for two weeks straight. Farmers have thrown away their calendars, called it mid-June, and planted their crops early. In a bustling family restaurant surrounded by the large, well-groomed farms of Delaware, near London, Geof Kime is taking a dinner break.

The trim 32-year-old with floppy dark hair is writing on a paper napkin as he eats. “There should be a napkin museum somewhere,” he says with a smile. “I’ve patented a few doodles in my time.”

At the top of the serviette, Kime prints HEMP and, below, starts sketching the plant that has absorbed his energies for the past decade — ever since he read about it in a student magazine at the University of Western Ontario. On his diagram, the mechanical engineering graduate marks the fibre inside the stem, which can be spun like cotton, and the broom-like flowering head whose seed can be pressed for oil. “It’s these fibres in bundles around the central, pithy core that we are after — the bast fibres,” he says. “They’re more than twice as long as cotton fibres and a lot stronger. Sown closely together — around 350 to the square metre — the plants are too constricted to grow branches, which makes for a smooth, node-free stalk. We’ll cut down the stalk before it seeds out, let it ret in the field a little to loosen the fibre, extract the fibre, bale it, sell it.”

Kime, wearing hemp trousers and a hemp shirt, is finally within sight of a cherished dream. A prime engineer of the return of hemp in Canada, he had just that morning planted imported Hungarian hemp seed in a field beside his father’s house. In 12 weeks, he would use a cutting machine he designed, initially on a napkin, to harvest that plot and 20 others totalling more than 500 acres — one of the first commercial hemp crops in the country in 60 years.

Growing either form of cannabis — marijuana or hemp — became a criminal activity in Canada in 1938 when the minister of pensions and national health introduced an amendment to the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act. He was following the Americans, who a year earlier had essentially administered cannabis farming out of existence via a tax act. The moralists had forced the legislation, after the ban on liquor was repealed in 1933, in an ongoing effort to banish the enemies within that were ruining the country’s moral fibre. The timber and petrochemical industries were ultimately the beneficiaries.

The legislation brought an abrupt end to an historic part of the agricultural and manufacturing fabric of this country. The first recorded hemp crop in North America was planted in 1606 near the Nova Scotia shore of the Bay of Fundy by French botanist and apothecary Louis Hebert. Within a few decades, Jean Talon, the first intendant of New France, had set a bounty on hemp to encourage its planting. And settlers in the early 1800s were commonly given tracts of land on the proviso that they grow hemp. By the time the ban was imposed, there were hemp farms and mills in almost every province.

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With the birth of environmentalism in the 1960s and the push to legalize marijuana, lobbying began for hemp’s return. By the early 1990s, the campaign across North America was reaching critical mass. In magazines and pamphlets promoting hemp, the claims were glowing and substantial. “A crop more versatile than the soybean, the cotton plant, and the Douglas fir tree put together… whose products are interchangeable with those from timber or petroleum… that grows like Jack’s beanstalk with minimal tending.” There was truth in the claims; on an immediate, pragmatic level, there was an economic motive for a return to hemp.

Almost as long as the wind has been blowing, farmers have been on the lookout for crops that fetch more at market than they cost to produce. And in the tobacco belt of southwestern Ontario in the early 1990s, farmers were in need of something new.

Kime’s fascination with hemp peaked in the summer of 1993, when a museum at Grand Bend, Ont., featured an exhibition on Howard Fraleigh. “He was a member of the Ontario legislature from the 1920s, who zealously grew hemp near here, but died poor after the acreage declined in the Depression.” Around the same time, Kime learned of a company called Hemcore, which had planted 1,500 acres of hemp in Essex, England; also banned there at one time to prevent surreptitious marijuana growing, hemp farming had become legal again. Restoring the crop in Canada became Kime’s passion.

The mission needed a five-year plan. Both hemp fibre and seed had to be de-criminalized. Research was needed to determine how hemp fared in regional soils and climates. Machinery for domestic processing of hemp seed and fibre (some of which, like the decorticator, a fibre-separating machine, was now sitting in museums) had to be adapted or created anew. And the public had to be primed for a reincarnated source of such diverse consumer items as paper, salad oil, lip balm, fabric, carpet-backing, soap and cheap bedding for stabled horses.

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Captioned as: Lush green as far as the eye can see, Brian McElroy’s hemp field (PREVIOUS PAGE) in Darlingford, Man., was seeded only a month earlier. In about 12 weeks, fibre crops, such as Eugene Lemoine’s near Ste. Agathe, Man. (OPPOSITE), are as high as a combine window. Geof Kime (LEFT) poses beside the cutting machine he designed to harvest his hemp fields near London, Ont., for the bast fibres (ABOVE) in the stalks.

Kime teamed up with Joe Strobel, a canny tobacco farmer from Tillsonburg, Ont., twice his age. “Joe and I were simply interested in reviving a sustainable, job-creating crop that could be grown without pesticides. And that is how we sold it,” says Kime. With that manifesto, the two men formed the company Hempline and set out to change a government’s mind.

On the principle that a step achieved is better than a leap that falls short, Hempline first set about convincing Health Canada to allow them to grow hemp under a research permit. Forms flew back and forth. After four months, having successfully kept a straight face while answering questions about how many plants, not acres, they intended to cultivate, Kime and Strobel received the go-ahead. In June 1994, on 10 acres near Tillsonburg previously devoted to tobacco, the pair planted the first legal hemp in North America, outside wartime, in six decades.

Across the country, agronomists pricked up their ears. Jack Moes, a tall, studious man from Brandon, Man., was instrumental in kick-starting hemp research in the prairies the summer after Kime and Strobel’s pioneering crop. As a government new-crops agronomist, Moes ordered a bit of seed from Kime, as well as a sample from the Ukraine.

“In the 1920s,” says Moes, “Portage la Prairie was a centre for commercial hemp. The Manitoba Cordage Company was going strong then and the province grew over 1,000 acres of hemp annually. My gut feeling was that we could make this work again, but it was, and is, going to be work. I don’t know of any new crop that happens easily.” By the mid-1990s, cultivating hemp had also gained a certain appeal for ministers of agriculture: it had job and revenue potential. Manitoba’s agriculture minister, Harry Enns, earned himself the sobriquet “Harry Hemp” for the enthusiasm with which he got behind the revival.

It had fallen to Health Canada to issue the first hemp research permits, rather than Agriculture Canada, because cannabis was originally outlawed for the neurological effects of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Hemp and marijuana both contain the mood-altering component. Hemp, however, has only trace amounts of the substance, whereas top-grade, hydroponically-grown marijuana, which connoisseurs label “gold,” tests out at around 20 percent. Smoking any part of a mature hemp plant induces no pleasant reaction: it would be like tearing out, rolling up, and smoking this page. Hemp advocates, recalling hemp’s glory days as the raw material for rope, sum up the disparity between hemp and marijuana in the neat phrase rope not dope.”

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Captioned as: Seeding a new industry

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Captioned as: By mid-August last year, hemp fibre crops in southwestern Ontario (TOP) were in flower and ready to be cut. Seed crops are typically gathered four to six weeks later. In both harvests, the plants’ long, tough stalks can become entangled in and jam up the machinery (ABOVE).

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Captioned as: During their harvest at the end of September, Jack Moes (TOP, at right) and Grant Sissons break open a hairy bract atop a hemp plant to examine a sample of the seeds grown for Prairie Hemp on Sissons’ farm near Portage la Prairie, Man. Later, Kelly Smith (ABOVE, at left) and Greg Herriott inspect a bin of the seeds, which will be pressed for oil.

Bill C-8, the Controlled Substances Act, which began its passage through Parliament in 1996, acknowledged the distinction between hemp and marijuana. Health Canada set up a section with the action-movie title The Industrial Hemp Project to outline the relevant regulations. At its heart was the spectre of a loophole that would allow marijuana to be grown with a government seal of approval. To close the hole, the differences had to be defined.

After much anguished debate, Health Canada decided to set the line between the cannabis cousins at 0.3 percent THC. Farmers would have to have the top third of the mature hemp plants analyzed and if it tested out above 0.3, it would be considered narcotic, and illegal. The law also stated that no one could sell whole plants and, as a way of keeping things serious, the minimum plot size allowable was 10 acres for commercial cultivation, one acre for seeds. And there would be routine checks.

During the spring of 1998, farmers across the land began filling in forms. In the first week of an exceptionally warm spring — the eleventh hour for getting a crop in the ground — the first licences went out. Health Canada had received 374 applications for commercial licences of which 269 were successful — all but 61 of those from Ontario and Manitoba. Over the next few weeks, those farmers put in a crop already grown in roughly 25 other countries around the world.

From the top of the escarpment that runs through Riding Mountain National Park in central Manitoba, the view is an unending mosaic of arable farmland. A few years ago, most of it bore the beige flag of wheat, but when the Crow rate, which subsidized the transportation of grain, was removed and government insurance for low prices phased out, the quilt of cultivation took on new colours. Last summer, the green plots of hemp belonging to the Saquet family from France, who first settled at the foot of the escarpment in 1906, clearly stood out in the pattern. It’s a shade of green a painter would call royal.

The Saquet farm is near the distinctly Franco-Manitoban town of Laurier, where hemp is called le chanvre. In 1994, Rene Saquet saw an article in the Winnipeg Free Press about Kime and Strobel’s company. “I was interested right away, keen to produce Canadian stock seed,” he says. He got a research permit and planted the first three acres behind the workshop, surrounding it with corn to discourage would-be thieves who might mistake it for marijuana. “Actually, the hemp grew taller than the corn.”

Starting with, naturally, French hemp seed, the Saquets fine-tuned their yield of pounds of seed per acre over the next two years. A crop is judged by the dollars per acre it renders: the pounds of seed harvested multiplied by the price per pound at the moment of sale, minus expenses. (Farmers have never really accepted the metric system.) As a bench mark, a crop that yields $400 an acre, such as highgrade canola, earns most-favoured status.

By the spring of 1998, the Saquets had no doubt about going commercial. “Nothing we’d seen grew like hemp,” says Rene. Moreover, the family had already been courted for their crop from both sides of the border, by the venture capitalists Consolidated Growers and Processors out of Monterey, California, and by the Ontario firm Hempola, a retailer of hemp oil-based products looking to be among hemp’s avant-garde. Intensely Canadian, the Saquets, along with other Manitoba farmers, merged with Hempola to form Prairie Hemp. Last summer, its contracted farmers planted 512 acres of hemp, which did indeed grow like Jack’s beanstalk.

On the Saquets’ personal field, two months after seeding, the crop was taller than a basketball player and the family faced the comic but vital task of weeding out the undesired male plants before they produced pollen and fertilized the oil-bearing seed. Various Saquet children were stationed on tractor roofs with binoculars. From these lofty vantage points, they directed their fathers, who had been outfitted with projecting red flags tied to their backs, through the maze to the male plants destined for decapitation.

By early October, several weeks later than usual — it had been a funny year for weather — the killing frosts finally arrived on the prairies and knocked off the lower leaves of the hemp. Sunshine followed the frost, drying the seed heads, which were then ready for harvesting. In went the combines and mowers. Prairie Hemp lost one field to a freak hail storm in mid-July, but managed to bring in the rest — although it was far from smooth sailing. The sheer, tough mass and length of hemp meant that farmers spent hours tugging and chopping tangles of stalks free of whichever bit of machinery they had wrapped around. There would be much cutting and welding in their workshops over the winter to make the combines and mowers more hemp-friendly this summer.

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Captioned as: Hemp was woven with silk for this elegant, custommade wedding dress retailing at a SoHo boutique in New York City for $2,500 (U.S.).

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Captioned as: Hempen History

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In southwestern Ontario, Kime and other farmers interested only in the long, strong bast fibres in the stalk, levelled their fields in mid-August and allowed the stalks to soften. Walking into stands of hemp ahead of the machines revealed them to be weed-free underfoot with round stems the size of dimes and heads level with the combine’s cabin window. After harvest, standing beside bales of fibre that had gone through the cutting machine he designed, Kime allowed, “It’s going to be very pleasant to be receiving cheques instead of writing them.” His processed fibre will end up as carpeting and upholstery.

Across the country, the harvest moon waxed and waned. From British Columbia to the fertile Annapolis Valley, where hemp was first planted nearly four centuries ago, the fields of ’98 matured and were gathered. On a 250-acre organic farm in the Eastern Townships, a year after getting the first research licence in Quebec, the father-and-son team of Jerzy and Sasha Przytyk was “dancing.” Despite the fact that a commercial licence did not land in their mailbox until June 26, their Finnish hemp yielded more than 1,000 pounds of seed an acre. Research in Poland had led the Przytyks into hemp farming for oil. The strain grew short with a seed that, when pressed, has a nuttier flavour than the grassier lowland varieties and is easier to combine than loftier hemp.

To date, the largest hemp operation in Canada is centred in the small Ontario community of Pain Court, which is French for short or small bread. There’s nothing small about Kenex Ltd., however. Jean Laprise, its pragmatic president, claims direct descendance from pioneer hemp grower Louis Hebert. A stone’s throw from Chatham, Laprise contracted 50 farmers to sow 2,000 acres — about 30 percent of all the licenced acres in Canada — and process the resulting fibre and seed, on site, in a six-line mill.

About half the Pain Court harvest went south of the border, though Laprise would just as soon sell it all here. The Americans are reckoned to be years away from rehemping, although the tobacco-growing state of Kentucky, once the hemp-basket of America, is keen to mimic Canada and its politicians are lobbying hard in Washington.

Clearly, hemp fares well against the forces of nature, but how will it prevail against market forces? If the initial demand for hemp is high and the price looks good, farmers will need to avoid going overboard and overplanting; it’s happened before. Now, more than ever, agriculture is a global business, and the parts of the world that never stopped growing hemp are certain to want to infiltrate our domestic market.

At the retail end, Ontario-based Hempola has product labels standing by for everything from lip balm to paint. After its fields survived a 70-centimetre snowfall in early October, R & D Hemp of Saskatchewan sold about half its organic oil to The Body Shop, which promptly put out a best-selling line of skin-care products. Hemp’s oil contains nutritious proteins and essential fatty acids, including gamma linoleic acid, which has been shown to boost the immune system. These virtues will guarantee hemp oil a future in nutriceuticals — an industry always in search of a lifesaver.

Hemp’s wilder disciples, more evangelical than scientific, boast that it is pest-and disease-free, but no organism can claim that. In fact, hemp plays host to a legion of insects and diseases — more than 300 of them worldwide-of which the vast majority are benign. “There’s sclerotinia,” says Manitoba’s Moes, “which leads to moldy lesions on the stalk; everything above the lesions dies. And a cyclical pest called Bertha army worm has a healthy appetite for hemp. It arrives, stays for three years, then goes away for nine years or so.” Bertha last peaked on the prairies in 1995. You can salvage fibre if Bertha has been at it, but not the seeds. Still, hemp’s eco-image, a strong selling point, would be tarnished if it were treated with chemical pesticides.

Despite the possibility of infestations, hemp certainly deserves to be back in crop rotation — the strongest defence farmers have against that great jester, nature, which seems never to deal four aces in four straight years. Once the technology for getting hemp fibre off the fields is running smoothly, it does have an assured future; a return to tree-free paper is long overdue. As for seed oil, since its last appearance in the 1930s, there has arisen a considerable cohort of consumers who are prepared to pay higher prices for natural foods and cosmetics.

There are still plenty of maybes in the fields for Cannabis sativa L., but agriculture’s Rip Van Winkle has indeed awoken and looked hard into the sun. Soon the seed will be cast again, and this summer, if you are out for a country drive near London, Ont., Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park, or any of a hundred other farms across the country, keep an eye out for tight, tall swathes of royal green. That’s hemp, the sequel, come again to a field near you.

Sidebar:

Hemp: the all-purpose plant

Upscale automobile manufacturer BMW is incorporating hemp into car doors and dashboards, designer Giorgio Armani is weaving it into clothes, and chefs at five-star restaurants are sprinkling it on salads. Less than a year after commercial cultivation of the plant became legal again, there are retail products of every description produced from hemp’s fibre and oil-producing seed crops. At the time hemp farming was banned, there were a reported 25,000 uses of hemp. Today, Ontario’s Hempline lists such diverse uses as:

  • Building materials: insulation, particle board, mediumdensity fibreboard Cordage: rope, twine, yarn
  • Fuel: methanol, heating oil
  • Hemp-core chips: horsestable bedding and, when mixed with manure, compost
  • Personal health and hygiene: from salad oils and other food products to pharmaceuticals and soaps
  • Plastics: cellophane, phenol
  • Pulp and paper products: diapers, newsprint, cardboard, filters, non-woven and absorbent paper
  • Textiles: clothing, carpets, curtains, upholstery
  • Other: paint and ink

Copyright © 1999, Canadian Geographic. All rights reserved.