Halifax, Nova Scotia — If marijuana is the black sheep of the cannabis clan, hemp is surely the chosen offspring.
After being banished by government for about 60 years, it is suddenly legal and hip again. But everyone, from government officials to prospective producers, remains uncertain over how to handle the future of the wayward plant.
“We feel that certainly the growing of it is reachable with proper varieties and proper management,” says Dwane Mellish, manager of Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture’s agronomy division.
“Some people would suggest this crop is: you just plant it and it grows, but it does take specific management practices. The challenge is to establish infrastructure to handle the crop, as well as making inroads to markets.”
The industrial market possibilities of a plant that has not sprouted from provincial soil since the 1930s are often unfairly overshadowed by the plant’s close association with its illegal first cousin. Industrial hemp is legal and may be grown under licence from Health Canada as long as it contains less than 0.3 per cent THC, the narcotic component of the plant.
Last year, the government department received requests to license 14,163 hectares for commercial production of the crop in Canada; 127 of those hectares were in Nova Scotia, where about 10 producers are eyeing the future of the product.
Expectations for the crop are high, running as much as four tonnes of biomass per 0.4 hectares and one kilogram of seed, if all conditions are optimum.
Once the technical difficulties have been overcome, growers are hoping to receive a return in the order of $325 per hectare for themselves and $490 per hectare overall. Ontario experiments are already yielding $160 to $190 per hectare, prices comparable to those for traditional crops such as grain.
Nova Scotia growers are caught in a classic catch-22 situation – they realize they need to grow more hemp to form the foundation for a market but are unwilling to do so until a market exists. Mellish says the United States appeared to be one of the more promising markets – it opened its borders to hemp last December, but it has since closed them again.
“they’re not allowing any product that cannot be confirmed to have zero THC,” says Mellish, noting that leaves hemp – and its small traces of THC – languishing in Canada.
Compounding this obstacle is the capital cost. Machinery needed to process hemp must be imported from Europe and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, making it unlikely that farmers who do make the investment in a small marketplace will realize profits in the near future. More often, producers such as Don Hunter lease equipment and pour all their time, energy and money back into expansion.
“It blew my mind when I read the possibilities of this plant and the big market for the finished product,” says the president of HempHunters Industries Ltd.
A 1998 test run on 5.2 hectares in Linden (located just outside Amherst) went so well, he expanded to 60 hectares last year and is looking at harvesting from 120 hectares this year.
News like that pleases Wave Weir, who hopes to see hemp become as common as cotton within the next decade. The owner of Wave Handmade on Argyle Street in Halifax imports hemp products, which are then sold for prices ranging from about $116 for a pair of wide-leg casual pants to $125 for a shirt. Acquiring the product locally would help reduce prices.
“Right now, it’s very trendy and not easily accessible,” she says, “but for a lot of people coming in, to buy a high-quality shirt, the price is not out of line.”
If hemp outfits of old were somewhat rough on the skin, their modern counterparts are decidedly more upscale. Couture designers are mixing the fabric – which has qualities similar to linen, although the fibres are softer, plumper and more insulating – with silks and wools for an interesting take on the traditional.
“It’s being used more and more, and people wanted to bring it back because it can be grown without chemicals,” explains Weir. “That was the big attraction.”
Settlers in Nova Scotia in the early 1800s had a relatively easy time of it, compared to today’s prospective hemp growers. Upon being allotted parcels of land, the newcomers were simply told how much cannabis sativa they were required to produce for the King’s navy and set about sowing seeds. Favourable conditions along picturesque river valleys produced rich and bountiful harvests.
But when Pierre Sansfacon inquired about importing hemp a few years ago, it took suspicious Canada Customs officials three weeks to provide him with an answer.
These days, the Moncton store owner receives regular shipments of hemp clothing, rope and jewelry from locations as close as Montreal, a far cry from the mid-1990s, when the product was imported from Nepal and Thailand.
“I plan to keep selling it as long as big industry doesn’t take it,” he says. “It’s new … (but) when it is at bigger stores, it will be time to change.”
At A Glance
Everything old is new again when it comes to hemp. Here are some quick facts on this trendy plant:
Old industry: Hemp is among one of the oldest industries on the planet, going back more than 10,000 years to the beginnings of pottery. The oldest relic of human industry is a bit of hemp fabric dating back to about 8,000 BC.
Strong fibres: The fashion industry likes hemp for its strength. The bark of the hemp stalk contains bast fibres which are among the planet’s longest natural soft fibres. They are longer, stronger, more absorbent and more insulative than cotton fibre.
Environmentally friendly: Hemp grows well without herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides. One hectare of hemp yields the same amount of paper pulp as four hectares of trees.
Uses: Aside from being profitably processed into cloth, hemp may be manufactured into paper, fibreboard, Fiberglass, food, building materials and 25,000 other known uses.
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