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Hemp breeding coming of age

Posted on May 5, 2004

London, Ontario — Hemp production in Ontario is finally stepping into its teenage stage, six years after the federal government approved its use as a crop. Of course, the teens aren’t exactly a smooth ride. The carefree optimism of toddler years and childhood can sometimes give way to the cold reality of blemishes and mood swings on its way to solid adulthood.

The industry is dealing “with all the ups and downs of that age,” says Peter Elkerton of Owen Sound, executive director of the Ontario Hemp Alliance.

Some growers got in too fast and too deep; some had high hopes for a U.S. market for their products but their efforts and businesses were dashed by restrictive import rules.

“Some of us jumped into the whole hemp thing, thinking, ‘This product is so good, all you have to do is put it in the ground and off you go,’ ” Elkerton says.

But, slowly it’s growing as producers find new markets for hemp fibre — which goes into rope and clothing and can be a component of paper, “plastic” lumber, insulation and animal bedding — and food-grade oils and grains for healthy-food recipes.

But little more proof is needed that Canada hemp production is coming into its own than Peter Dragla’s recent work in Australia.

Dragla, a Ridgetown College plant breeder and probably Canada’s leading hemp specialist, just returned from a trip down under to work with the Aussies to develop hemp seeds that would grow well in a subtropical climate.

“I remember how I was seven years ago” when starting from scratch, Dragla says, so he jumped at the chance to help out.

“There are not too many centres doing hemp breeding in the world,” he says.

But seeds that grow into two-metre hemp plants in Southwestern Ontario would be considerably smaller if transplanted near an Australian rainforest because of fewer daylight growing hours there. (And with hemp production largely measured by tons-per-acre, size is important.)

Dragla is helping to breed seeds that can manage the vastly different climate. He shows a photo of the 2003 harvest near Ridgetown. Queensland’s crop will look like this “in three years,” he predicts.

Hemp is a cousin of marijuana but with trace amounts or no amounts of the chemical that produces a “high” if smoked.

It’s not pot and it’s not weed, producers still have to emphasize, but “the giggle factor about hemp versus marijuana has diminished quite a bit,” Elkerton says.

What Dragla and Elkerton and all producers hope is that some day hemp will grow out of its novelty stage and be viewed as every bit as mainstream as corn and soybeans.

Is it likely? Well, realistically, its expansion from a niche market would require a huge technological and practical leap in yield, acreage and application.

Even so, if it’s a dream, some people are making a decent living from it.

In Manitoba, a group is planning to build a $15-million hemp fibre processing plant at Dauphin.

A Toronto-based company sells hemp-based salad oils and hemp chips at specialty health stores across the country.

And elsewhere, deals are afoot to grow more products and markets.

In Delaware, west of London, Hempline Inc. president Geoff Kime says the versatility of the product lends itself well to having a breakout season soon.

He says it’s growing into a commercial-sized industry from its initial stages of being large-scale pilot operations.

“Things are definitely on an upsurge. It’s now a matter of expanding capacity,” Kime says.

As with any living thing, hemp production will experience its successes and failures, surges and setbacks.

Those in the industry have heard all the half-jests about living in a pipe-dream world.

But Elkerton is obviously far from alone in preparing for the next big growth spurt that may signal a breakthrough. He hopes producers and processors will be ready when it does.

“We don’t have the infrastructure yet to do that. But it’ll come.”

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