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IT'S NOT EASY being a legal hemp farmer in Canada. Not only do you have to deal with a slow moving Ottawa bureaucracy and unstable supplies of decent hemp seed, but you've also got to answer all these annoying questions about marijuana from reporters looking to sensationalize their story.
Yet despite these and other unique difficulties associated with being the first to re-introduce cannabis into Canadian agriculture, pioneering farmers across the nation have faced up to the challenges thrown their way, and this year grew a total of 31 acres of legal hemp across Canada.
Although a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of acres of illegal cannabis annually harvested in Canada, this small start is an indication that if all goes well and the Americans don't invade, cannabis hemp may become a legal crop and respected renewable resource in Canada within a few short years.
There were four hemp cultivation license holders this year, two in Ontario, one in Manitoba and one in Alberta. Most of the license holders had more than license, as they were growing more than one plot of cannabis, often with different farmers acting as their licensed on-site partners.
I interviewed all of the primary license holders, and discussed with them the state of their research and their thoughts on the future of cannabis hemp in Canada.
Geof Kime of London, Ontario, is partners with Joe Strobel in a company called Hempline. Kime and Strobel were Canada's first and only farmers to receive a license for hemp cultivation in 1994, making 1996 their third year of growing legal hemp for experimental purposes. They've built a fibre separator which they will be testing on this year's crop.
Geof Kime testified before the Senate in April of this year, explaining the history of hemp cultivation in Canada, and encouraging them to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to allow the legal cultivation of cannabis hemp as commercial crop.
We grew ten acres, using seed imported from Europe, specifically Romania, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine and France.
Did you have to use any special equipment to harvest or process the crop?
We've built a fibre separator, which we will be using to separate the best fibre from the stalk, a process called scotching. We also intend to build a pilot scale mill, which we will scale up until we have enough capacity.
How was it applying for a license this year?
This year the process was much more streamlined than last year. Since it was our third time I knew what information to provide, and this I was also the second year of a long term research program which we began last year. Ideally however, I'd still like to have permission granted earlier in the year.
It isn't easy being a pioneer hemp farmer. Why do you bother?
I want to develop hemp as a profitable renewable resource. Hemp is one of the few fibre crops that can grow in Southern Ontario.
What do you see happening in the future?
Optimistically, there will be legal industrial hemp in Canada by 1997, depending on market development. Within 3-5 years there will be a viable hemp industry for sure, especially in Ontario, and probably Manitoba. Hempline is also being approached by more American companies interested in our activities. Although there's a lot of excitement about hemp, we're also growing flax, which has as high quality a fibre, but lower yield. Kenaf and ramie are also comparable to hemp, but are more suited to the Southern climate. Flax fibre is finer than hemp, but is more susceptible to weeds and disease.
What do you think about the new Controlled Drugs and Substances Act?
In the Act the government has recognized the commercial importance of the stalks and fibre. This is a strong signal that the government is supportive of a hemp industry, and also sends a message to provincial governments. The new regulations will allow fibres to be moved and exported, and also allows fibre based products to be sold without license. They added the word "industrial" to the regulatory powers of the Ministry of Health, which means they have a mandate to implement commercial licensing, if they choose to. This Act is a significant step forward for commercial hemp in Canada.
Do you think that the government is moving fast enough to legalize industrial commercial hemp?
The government isn't the only factor holding back the move to fun scale cultivation, but rather it is the lack of infrastructure and markets which are slowing down the industry. There are a number of different factors that have to come together. The government has gone a long way towards helping us and should be applauded for that.
It was the feds that produced the Agriculture Canada bulletin on hemp in 1994, and the author Gordon Reichert has spoken at numerous conferences. Health Canada is waiting for the results to come back from the research that is going on now.
The government is moving cautiously, but they are moving forward. We're way ahead of the US, and we need to continue to develop the industry, and not be pointing fingers to blame others for not moving fast enough. We all have a part to play: government, industry, academics, farmers, the public. No one group can do it alone.
I also don't agree with those who argue that the regulatory power for hemp cultivation should be immediately moved from the Ministry of Health to the Ministry of Agriculture. I don't think that it ready matters which ministry gives out the licenses, as the regulations themselves are more important than who dispenses them. It is important however that they be cognizant of the timely nature of the planting date. Hemp is a regulated industry and win remain that way for a long time.
How do you feel about the link between hemp farmers and the marijuana movement?
Hemp is about business and the environment, marijuana is a moral question about the government's control of what drugs people consume. These two questions with nothing in common but the shape of the leaf, and we have to separate the issues. To promote the two together is as erroneous as saying that hemp is bad because marijuana is considered to be bad. Parties from both ends of the spectrum try to drag the two along I together, but industrial hemp is a totally different variety than marijuana. It is a separate issue and should be treated as such. The evidence indicates that the level of THC is not related to the yield or quality of the fibre. We're not trying to pass judgement on marijuana, we want to stay out of that debate and just go about the business of developing a hemp industry in Canada.
Gordon Scheifele works at the Ridgetown College of Agricultural Technology, for the Agronomy Section of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture. For the past two years, he has used his position and expertise to help local farmers to get a license for cultivate hemp.
How much hemp are you growing this year?
I'm involved in growing an acre and a half at Ridgetown College, plus twelve acres in three fields of four acres each, with affiliated farmers. We're growing six different varieties in total.
Where did you get your seeds?
I got my seeds from Jack Moes in Manitoba and also through I Hempline, as well as bringing in three varieties from Romania.
Did you have to use any special equipment?
The four acre fields allow for field scale production, and we tested for age harvesting equipment, cutting, turning windrows, and bailing.
Why are you growing hemp?
It's a challenge and a promising new crop. One of my areas of responsibility is new crops. Some farmers approached us to do this research, and I thought it seemed like a good idea, with good potential for Southwestern Ontario. For the future, I think hemp is going to make a major contribution to our agricultural system. It's going to develop into jobs, additional income, and become another crop for farmers in crop rotation. There's nothing negative other than paperwork. It's sometimes tempting to quit because of horrendous red tape, but in the long term it's all going to be worth it.
How does this year's cultivation compare with last year?
Last year there was no outside funding or support, it was just a side project. This year funding was made available through Kenex, and they're applying for major long term funding for Ridgetown College. This could develop into a substantial research program. We've also got a full time technician on a summer contract on soft funding, so we are much more involved than last year and are able to do better research.
What are you going to do with your crop?
There's nothing in place to make anything out of our crop to date. Storage is designated as part of our distribution license, so we're storing as much as possible to test a fibre separating machine, which may be done sometime after harvest with dried material. We're water resting to obtain fibre for fibre quality evaluation. We're also doing some field resting combined with warm water resting.
Did you have any problems in growing the stuff?
Although some of our plants were destroyed by severe hail, we've discovered that cannabis will recover from hail damage, but is sensitive to excessive water and compaction. There's been severe rainstorms, and all our locations were flooded at times. Hemp is as sensitive to flooding as field peas, but good drainage allows it to recover as quickly as possible. Hemp also doesn't tolerate field compaction from heavy equipment, and so it requires field management to avoid compaction from wheel tracks.
Did you have any problems getting a license this year?
There was a change in administration, from Dr. Hosse to Francine Magnon. Whenever I was contacting Magnon she was courteous, but the process really held everything up. We started the application process early last year, yet didn't receive the license until May 15. It was very frustrating, and very disorganized in Ottawa. We had our paperwork in order, they were just not able to decide how they would do it. By the time it was the end of April planting season was already upon us. We couldn't move seed from Hempline to Ridgetown, and so didn't get seed until the 24 of May. Jack Moes was delayed in importing his seed through customs, and Geoff Kime couldn't get seeds for us either. We lost three weeks of our production year, and ended up seeding year old seed, except for three varieties which we got from Romania. This was actually an improvement over the last two years, when licenses were given out in middle of June.
How about the police?
We've had excellent cooperation from local ROMP and provincial police. We knew what they were looking for, and had already established personal contact and rapport. Last year it was our first time, so we had to establish our credibility. We knew about their concerns this year and worked around them, so we were able to satisfy them very quickly. We also had better security this year. The outdoor fields were closer to buildings which could monitor them.
What are you learning about hemp?
We're gathering data on how best o incorporate hemp into a crop rotation, and we've shown that hemp produces a tremendous amount of biomass quickly, and can be harvested by the end of summer, within 70-80 days of seeding. The roots are tap root, quite deep. We are measuring and taking samples of the roots, because we want to use hemp as a crop to improve soil structure. It will take good crop management practices and good soil with added fertility to grow a good crop of hemp. Weed control is not a given, and also requires good management. A weedy crop of hemp is certainly possible.
What is your vision for the immediate future of hemp?
We've been moving forward with production research, and processing research is the next big step. We may have to go through the same sort of licensing procedure next year, but we're moving forward to allow industry to get established. We should be planning for seed production, to ensure that a good volume of seed will be available. We need a Canadian seed industry, and so we're going to need a breeding program.
MORLEY & VALERIE BLANCH
Much of the hemp that was grown in Alberta last year is now in the basement of the University of Alberta, under the care and control of Professor Ken Domier. He's got over 500 kilos of hemp stalk stashed away, and although he's squeezed in a little testing under a broader research program into flax, he explained that without specific funding from the federal government or private industry he wouldn't be able to do any significant research with the hemp stalk in his possession.
Last year there were two licensed hemp farmers in Alberta, this year there is only one. Alberta's only hemp farmers this year are Valerie and Morley Blanch, and Valerie's uncle Howard Christensen. They did not harvest this year's crop, instead leaving it standing in the field to test its suitability as a snowtrap.
How much hemp did you grow this year?
We're growing one variety on less than one tenth of an acre. That's even less than the one third of an acre we grew last year. There's no point in having a larger plot if you can't sell it, and a smaller plot is enough for our research purposes. This way we don't have to take too much out of our normal crop production.
Where did you get your seed?
We planted Hungarian seed which we arranged to have imported to us out of England.
Did you have to use any special equipment?
No. Because our plot is research sized, we just hand seeded with a small hand machine.
What will you do with your crop?
We are observing how it grows under different field conditions, particularly poorer soil, to see how it acts as a windbreak and snowtrap. Hemp is killed by the first hard frost, and the dead plants remain standing through the winter. It becomes like a hedge. Trees and shrubs are commonly I planted to establish a windbreak. But they can be difficult to get established in places when it's very dry and windy. Hemp can put on many feet of growth in one season, so you might be able to establish a temporary shelter very quickly. You don't have to wait for years for the trees to amount to something.
How did the licensing procedure compare from this year to last year?
We spent considerably less time on it this year. It was nowhere near as time consuming a process, but it still wasn't easy. We were also later getting a license this year than last year, because of delays in Ottawa. The problem was that we applied in January, and at that time we were told they were changing from having one person approve applications to having a special committee for the job. By end of March they had not yet formed the committee, and our applications sat there unlooked at during that time. It wasn't that there was any problems with our application, but simply that Ottawa didn't get their approval mechanism working soon enough. Having a representative from Agriculture Canada sitting on the application committee is a very positive development.
Why do you bother? Is the expense and effort worth it?
Well, it's not much expense. Our involvement in it this year is at a considerably reduced level than last year. We're not hosting visitors to view the crops as we did last year, so it's a very minor sideline on the farm, insignificant as compared to last year. Last year was a more significant effort because so many people had heard about our hemp crop through word of mouth and were curious about it. Most people have not seen hemp growing in this country, and a lot of people wanted to visit. It was very time consuming. Since a lot of people saw our hemp field last year, there's not the same curiosity to see it this year, and we've turned down the few requests we did have. The plant certainly is unique in terms of the strength of the fibre in the stem. It seems to us that there ought to be a tremendous potential for using that fibre. We want to keep involved in the process, in case things start opening up and markets begin to develop.
Do you think we'll see legal hemp in Canada soon?
There's not a good chance, as there's still significant obstacles. It's hard to say what will come of Bill C-8, as it's all in the regulations. I see that your name is also on another license, along with that of Howard Christensen. Howard Christensen is my uncle. He visited our plot last summer and helped us with the harvesting. He's retired now, but he spent many years as a farmer in the dry areas near Calgary.
He was curious how the plant would grow under those conditions. We were curious too. Since it was simpler for him as a first time applicant if his application was the same as ours, we worked together on our applications. My dad and I worked with him to plant it out. His crop is about the same size as ours, and being grown for the same purposes.
Will you apply for a license again next year?
There is another phase of research that we had planned for this year but which we had to scrap. We had wanted to plant more varieties, to compare growth pattern and how quickly they came to maturity. We might apply for a license to do that research next year.
DR JACK MOES
Jack Moes is a New Crops Agronomist with the Manitoba Department of Agriculture. His job description includes researching and experimenting with new crops for potential introduction into Canadian agricultural production. He has used his position to facilitate the licensing process, forming partnerships with a number of different farmers, and participating in most of the experimental hemp farming going on in Manitoba.
How much hemp did you grow this year?
I obtained five licenses for a group of farmers, and am involved in growing a total of five acres at five locations in Manitoba. Two of the fields are one and a half acres, the other three fields are quite small. We're growing nine varieties, and are evaluating an nine for fibre. We're only evaluating six of them for seed production because three required too long to produce seed in Canadian climate.
Where did you get your seed?
We imported seeds from Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, France and Romania. The Romanian seed was detained at the border by Agriculture Canada to test for pests. Although it was cleared and released it was too late for use this year. It will keep until next year. The varieties were mostly monoecious, with some dioecious as well. Since some of the seeds didn't come from the originator of the line, so we have concerns about some of the pedigrees. Not all of the varieties we imported have been certified by the European Community, but they are all recognized European varieties of hemp.
I heard you had some legal problems with last year's crop.
Last year some of our plants were destroyed because they exceeded the THC limit of 0.3% as specified in the terms of our licenses. However, we had sampled more vigorously than required. The measurement is usually made from the top third of the plant, but we only sampled the top six inches, where the THC is usually more concentrated. It was only a few bundles that were destroyed, but we couldn't run our final tests on those crops.
Did you have to use any special equipment?
No special equipment was used and the crops were hand sown. The smaller fields were manually harvested with gas powered hedge trimmers. We used a farm combine for the one and a half acre plots, it worked fine. The main point for us at this time is to get the job done, we'll do it well later on down the road
Did you have any problems getting a license this year?
We're very familiar with process, and had no significant problems getting the licenses.
What do you see for the future? How long until we have legal hemp in Canada?
Optimistically I'd say two years minimum, maybe five. We need the farm lobby to push to take advantage of the process. The wheels are turning, but they need grease. There is an openness to the process, it just remains for farm and industry to decide whether they want to lobby enough to make it happen. We also need a strong mainstream company that will buy and use the hemp to lobby Ottawa. What kinds of tests will you be running on the crops?
We will test the seeds for agronomic aspects (how well they grow) and also seed oil value. We're very interested in the oil quality, especially the fatty acid profile.
Hemp seeds are fairly interesting from a nutritional standpoint. They are high in both gamma linolenic acid and alpha linolenic acid, as well as antioxidants like vitamin E. Most seed oils don't have gamma linoleic acid, which has many unique beneficial nutritional properties.
Cooperating companies are extracting the oil and producing both edible and non-edible test products. This is not a get rich quick scheme. Hemp is in the same ballpark as many other crops in terms of profitability.
What do you think about the possibility of using a single hemp crop to produce both fibre and seed?
The idea of double use is an attractive possibility. The fibre quality is lower, but still good for particle board and composite lumber. Textile production requires higher quality and therefore only a single use. You have to harvest before the plants go to seed for single use crops, which are usually monoecious.
What do you think of the argument that optimum agricultural production could be achieved with varieties with more than 0.3% THC content?
I have heard that argument, and it hasn't been satisfactorily answered. It's not known how much THC you'd need. One percent? Fifteen percent?
I've heard THC recommended as a bug repellent. Yet anecdotally I know that plants with high THC often have bug problems. It's an overblown kind of belief. Nobody really knows.
How do you feel about the connections between the marijuana movement and hemp farming?
I disassociate myself from the marijuana movement and have no comment about it. I see the potential for a legitimate agricultural crop that can be taken advantage of without need for legalization of all varieties of the plant. I can foresee low THC hemp cultivation being possible under permit without changing the situation in regard to marijuana.
Copyright © 1996
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