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Hempen history

Posted on March 1, 1999

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.

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 1998 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 Hébert. 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.

Added material

Writer Phil Jenkins lives near Wakefield, Quebec.

6500 BC Hemp is first harvested in Central Asia.

4500 BC Wild hemp is domesticated to become one of China’s earliest crops.

2700 BC Cannabis use is first recorded in the pharmacopoeia of Shen Nung, one of the fathers of Chinese medicine.

450 BC Greek historian Herodotus reports the Scythians of southeast Europe and Asia throw hemp seeds on heated stones and inhale the smoke.

5 BC to mid-1800s Hemp is used in 90 percent of all ships’ canvas sails, riggings, and nets because of its strength and resistance to the rotting effects of salt water.

1500 to 1700 Hemp and flax are major fibre crops in Russia, Europe and North America.

1545 Spaniards bring cannabis seeds to Chile.

1500s to 1900s Many of the world’s greatest painters, including Veronese, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh, created their masterpieces on hemp canvases.

1606 French botanist Louis Hébert plants the first hemp crop in North America in Port Royal, Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia).

1753 Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus formally christens the plant Cannabis sativa L.

1839 An American homeopathy journal publishes the first of many reports on the medicinal effects of cannabis.

1870 The U.S. Pharmacopoeia lists cannabis as a medicine for various ailments.

1890 Queen Victoria’s personal physician, Sir Russell Reynolds, describes cannabis in the journal Lancet as “one of the most valuable medicines we possess.”.

1928 Cannabis becomes illegal in Britain.

1937 The United States passes legislation effectively prohibiting the cultivation of cannabis.

1938 Canada bans cannabis farming.

1940s The Canadian and American governments briefly lift the restrictions on hemp farming to aid the war effort.

1993 Hemp farming becomes legal again in Britain.

1994 Health Canada issues the first research permit for growing hemp.

1998 Hemp farming becomes legal again in Canada.

1999 Gross retail sales of hemp products worldwide are projected to reach $ 150 million (U.S.) this year.

Research: Mary Vincent.

A 10th century Chinese banner, printed on hemp paper, depicts the Buddhist goddess Kuan-yin. Sackler Museum, Harvard University/Bridgeman Art Library.

Artists such as Vincent Van Gogh painted on canvases made from cannabis. Self-portrait, Musee D’Orsay, Paris/Superstock.

This 17th-century wampum belt was fashioned from shell beads and “Indian” hemp. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford/Bridgeman Art Library.

The botanical components of Cannabis sativa are shown in this 19th-century coloured engraving. Natural History Museum, London/Bridgeman Art Library.

Italian workers weave hemp into cloth in 1930. Corbis/Brescia Negri; Shoe: James Worrell.

The hemp canvas upper of this Adidas sneaker caused a controversy in the U.S. in 1996.

The Gutenberg Bible was printed on hemp paper around 1455. Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Art Library.

The clipper ship Flying Cloud, built in Boston in 1851, was outfitted with hemp sails and ropes. Currier and Ives/Bridgeman Art Library.

Workmen at a Royal Canadian Navy dockyard in Halifax in 1941 splice the largest hemp rope ever made in Canada. UPI/Corbis Bettman.

A Vancouver microbrewery last year launched the first Canadian hemp beer.

Copyright © 1999, Canadian Geographic. All rights reserved.