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High hopes for hemp

Posted on March 8, 1999

It was one of the more unusual displays at last summer’s Society of Automotive Engineers International Congress and Exposition in Detroit. There, among concept cars featuring the latest technology, were the Kenex Ltd. folks, showcasing side panels, armrests, dashboards and insulated RV and trailer walls made with hemp, a plant that had been banned in Canada for 60 years.

Times have changed, though, and so has the law. The weed once prohibited in this country because of confusion with its distant cousin, marijuana, is now legally spreading across southwestern Ontario like a, well, weed. The inaugural crops were harvested in southwestern Ontario last summer, giving Canada a leg up on the U.S.; despite hemp’s benign nature, strength and myriad uses, its cultivation remains illegal there, forcing Americans to import US$100 million worth of hemp per year, mostly from Asia and Eastern Europe.

Jean Laprise and Geof Kime, the first hemp farmers of the modern era, are already bringing a healthy chunk of business north of the border. Laprise, president of Pain Court, Ont.-based Kenex, oversees North America’s largest consortium of hemp growers and processors. Besides growing the crop, Kenex converts it into fibre, oil seed, animal bedding and food products. It is also blending processed hemp cores with resins, thermoplastics or polyesters for use in the auto industry.

Thanks to its presence at trade shows such as SAE’s, Kenex cultivated leads that helped it land a contract to supply a U.S. auto-parts maker with the equivalent of more than a third of its crop. And it has alos landed the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of coverage in newspapers and trade magazines such as Hemp Times, the premiere voice for North American hempsters. “This has generated a tremendous amount of interest in what we’re doing, and resulted in people calling us up or getting in touch with us, so it really helps our marketing efforts,” says general manager Robert L’Ecuyer.

Kenex does all its marketing in-house. Its website, www.kenex.com, is the main way it disseminates information.

Geof Kime, founder of Hempline, which last summer grew 500 acres of hemp in Delaware, Ont., isn’t shy about disseminating his company’s information. He’s regularly quoted in print and on TV — including a segment aired nationwide on CBC-TV’s Venture — which helps attract customers.

To get to that point, though, Kime first spent two years convincing MPs and Senators that you can’t smoke hemp but can make a shirt out of it.

Hempline doesn’t make shirts, but has two core products. One is Hemp Chips — equine bedding. Hempline has sponsored horse shows, and run ads, through Marie McKaskell Art & Design of London, Ont., in horse magazines.

Hemp fibre makes up the second area of Hempline’s business. Kime has also developed markets for his high-strength, mold- and mildew-resistant crop, all 500 acres of which have already been spoken for by U.S. carpet and upholstery manufacturers.

But the real action promises to be in edibles such as flour, snack bars and salad dressing. Jerzy Prytyk, Quebec City-based president of the Canadian Industrial Hemp Council, says “we think the fastest-growing hemp market will be in food products, where the infrastructure exists to process hemp grain into many nutritious and edible products, and that sector is much more exciting.”

Less exciting are the marijuana-related misconceptions that haunt those trying to mainstream the industry and remove the connection to hemp’s original proponent — the drug subculture. “Hemp and marijuana are varieties of cannabis and have the same leaf shape,” Kime says. “But to think they’re identical is like saying a Great Dane and Chihuahua are identical because they’re both dogs.”

Regardless of image, hemp’s legal agricultural status here could give Canada a U.S. foothold. “It could take years to legalize growing it here, so this may give your country an advantage,” says Ken Friedman, president of the Hemp Industries Association in Seattle, Wash.

But Bud Sholts, chair of the North American Industrial Hemp Council in Madison, Wisconsin, says Canada’s prospects will be vastly improved when the U.S. government sees the light and legalizes it there too: “Our manufacturers aren’t really going to gear up for hemp until they know there’s a guaranteed supply in North America. So Canadians will really see their markets expand when we can grow it here as well, because that’s when things will really start to happen.”

Added material.

Phil Novak is a freelance writer based in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Hemp’s uses include equine bedding.

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