Experiences with Hemp in Ontario in 1998
by Georgia Greetham
I have thought of some things that could be helpful knowledge for anyone new to the hemp industry in Canada, or in the U.S. for that matter. I don't want to be redundant, and there are many books out there that are filled with useful information on the agronomics and how-to's of hemp. So I will mention only some personal observations from the 1998 season that I have not read in any books.
I met the Kawartha Hemp Co. farmers last July. Six farmers, licensed to grow industrial hemp for grain and for fibre, working together to create their new hemp venture. I offered my services as a general helper on their farms, with hemp production, but hemp grows quite well on its own, and it didn't need my help. But, there was something I could do. The farmers needed help with all the details. I was so pleased for this opportunity.
Hemp is a low maintenance, yet highly monitored crop. Twice during the growing season, once after 50 days and once at harvest, each field of hemp is tested for THC content. This test is the responsibility of the licensed farmer, and at his own expense.
This test can be surprisingly costly if you are not prepared for it. Although sample taking is relatively simple, the law requires that a professional "agronomist" or a person recognized by the Canadian Seed Growers Association (C.S.G.A) be the in-field sampler. This person must hold a license to sample THC in hemp, and they must be accompanied by an officer of the law, a notary public, or some other authoritative and unbiased observer.
One thing I have found important; the law states that for every field of hemp, a sample must be taken for THC testing. To lower the costs of sampling and testing your hemp, be sure to have all your hemp in one field. Even if your field is separated by a stream or pathway or other, have your GPS coordinates circumscribe the entire hemp lot. Because, for every field that you have listed on your license, you need a THC test.
Of course, if you are growing more than one variety, each variety needs to be tested individually, regardless of what field it's in. In the case of multiple varieties, there is an increased expense with testing, however, after your first year or two of experimenting with different varieties, you should know which variety you favor. One field sample /test for THC in hemp can cost hundreds of dollars, so be sure to think before you plant!
While I'm on the topic of hemp's THC testing, I think I should add that the test is being done to ensure that the THC does not exceed the legal limit (.03%). I have read that THC is naturally occurring in hemp at about 1 - 5% generally. In addition, depending on the location where the hemp is planted, and the stress it is put under to grow, the hemp will increase its levels of THC. So for example, if your hemp is experiencing a drought or not enough sunlight or is suffering in some way, it will fight for its life, and in doing so, the THC can increase. These are the reason's (that I can think of) for the strict monitoring of the hemp.
As far as planting goes, the farmers I worked with basically broadcast planted, and/or used a seed drill planting 55 pounds to the acre. This seeding rate helped crowd out other vegetation (weeds) creating a canopy cover, and also created long tall hemp stalks with no branching making harvest much less challenging. The word on the street is, that any old grain stripper can harvest hemp grain.
On the harvesting methods; I will have to get back to you on that, but for now I can tell you that whatever rotary combine they were using, it was a challenge. Modifications were made and it was a lot of stop and go. I believe Jean Laprise at Kenex has a better understanding of what machinery is best, and he would be a better source for that information anyway.
Actually, to think of another, one of the KHC farmer's had their crop scavenged by some trespassers. The thieves were later apprehended, and the hemp was returned to the farm, but in the meantime, such actions give lawmakers reason for concern. It seems as though, while hemp may be front page news these days, many people still don't know the difference between hemp and it's "higher" cousin. For now, it seems the THC tests will be a necessary part of hemp production.
This is definitely something to think about before getting involved in the production of hemp. Unless you have a written and signed contract to grow hemp for someone else, be sure you have a market strategy, an end user waiting for your hemp.
The thing about hemp is that it's a crop with a whole lot of hype, hearsay potentials, and it's most popular with alternative thinkers. What I mean is that, if someone approaches you with some seed and says "Hey, you plant this seed, and grow some hemp for me, and we'll split everything 50-50." Make sure you know of their full intentions, and also in who's hands the responsibility lies. Protect everyone involved with a written agreement.
Hemp does have unlimited potential in many industries. What hemp doesn't have is the technology to compete with the alternatives. Well, there are some new technological advances in hemp, just not everyone's jumping the bandwagon to get with these million++ dollar conversions. Some very promising technologies are coming from industrialized countries that may well compete with the labor intensive China, our greatest competition. In Australia for example, there is a prototype of an in field Decorticator. It separates the bast fibres from the hurds, while harvesting. The bast fibres are then ready for an enzyme bath, that eats away the pectin, leaving a fibre that is linen quality and ready for textile processing. Doesn't that sound good? It does four stalks a second. I think this technology sounds most exciting.
One thing about textile fibre is that the best fibre comes from the premature plant. This means that for textiles you will grow a fibre only crop, and no seed production. While seed production is a very appealing hemp venture, we all hope to use the fiber off this crop also, but the processes for the fibre can be complicated. Decortication involves the separating of the inner hurds from the bast fibers. This step is necessary for many paper making applications and for insulation's and, actually, for most applications.
The ideal process for industrial mature hemp stalks would be a one step process, where the hemp does not require decorticating. Some possibilities are concrete, and other building materials, where even the pectin is useful as a natural binder. In France, Chenevotte Habitat, has coined the term "Isochanvre" for their ingenious building material that acts as a thermal and sonic insulator, inner/outer wall, and they say it is weather and element resistant. This stuff, I would love to see. I'd be ecstatic to see it in Canada, too. I understand this material is far less expensive than the other building materials we use here, today. Dr.Krotov from the Ukraine invented an in-field pulper that also sounds terrific for one step papermaking and more can be heard on that from John Stahl at www.tree.org.
Now, seed production or I should say grain rather, is something a little less ingenious than fiber, but still has its stumbling blocks to look out for. Be sure of which hemp license you are applying for, before you go and plant. If you have been licenced to grow "industrial hemp grain" or "commercial hemp grain" for example, this means that you are licenced to grow and sell non-viable hemp grain. This means that you cannot save your seed to grow again next year and must purchase certified seed from a dealer, like Kenex Inc. This also means that you are responsible for making sure that your hemp grain is sterilized (rendered non-viable) before it hits the consumer market. Be aware that this is another test that is required, at your expense. There is a way around this though, and it is the best way I can see of going about it. Yes, the grain does have to be rendered non-viable, but you can have the test done after the initial processing (into a consumer good), when the seed is all mixed up in a finished product. At this point, the licenced processor can have the finished goods sampled and tested for viability.
It is almost impossible for a small hemp business to survive with the laws the way they are at this time, in Canada. It's not just the laws, but the expenses they incur. I find it ironic that the laws are set more for the big business strategy, yet the hemp plant itself, pushes for small enterprise. The plant will grow and grow, but whether any machinery is going to cut it down, is questionable.
They say hemp is the world's strongest natural fibre. When you see it, you believe it. The KHC farmers had only one combine fire that I know of, but I hear many farmers had multiple combine and baler fires over the course of the harvest season. Cutting blades were repeatedly being sharpened /replaced and the machines were stopped constantly to cut off the build up of bast fibres around the blades. But, oh how sweet those fibres are. I have some here at home that was cut right off the mower. They are long, soft and golden strands, exciting!
I guess another thing to note is that hemp fibre can exchange hands/ownership without a license, while hemp grain (or seed) on the other hand, can only be dealt through the hands of licenced people. You need a license to possess, transport, buy, sell, process and manufacture hemp seed. You almost need a license to look at hemp seeds. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but before you start thinking about your new hemp venture, think about your license you want to get. Most licences allow you to do a number of things, just be sure you don't waste energy and time applying for something unnecessary. For example, a license to process includes the ability to posses live seed, and to transport and buy/sell seed/grain.
There are so many issues in hemp legalities alone, I could go on and on. That could get really boring. I may be taking many of my learned experiences for granted, or have forgotten what else you need to know, but this hopefully has given you some insight into the hemp adventure. I hope I haven't made it sound like a too impassable challenge, because it isn't that way at all. Hemp is an industry for pioneers and adventurers and risk takers. You need to be prepared to invest some money, time and energy before you can expect to get anything back. Have a plan, have patience, and have faith. In time you start to notice that hemp has a mind of its own, and you are just helping it along.
Matthew, if there is anything else you would like me to expand on, let me know. I am very happy to help in any way, if I can. The web site for Health Canada's hemp licences and information is http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hpb-dgps/therapeut. I encourage people to really think for a while and know what they want before emailing any requests to the hemp bureau. That department is under funded and is having difficulty handling the business they have already. They are very friendly and pro hemp there, they just have a lot of glitches and stuff to work out yet. The last thing they need is public inquiries that could best be answered somewhere else. All they really do is push paper, after all. And it's not hemp paper, yet...
Finally, I want to mention two very informative and (for me) indispensable books. One for the economist and hempeteer; Chris Conrad's Hemp: Lifeline to the Future. And the other, a great benefit to any cultivar or grower; The Cultivation of Hemp, by Dr.Bocsa and M.Karus.
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This page last updated on 17 April 1999.