Canada grows North America's
first modern hemp crop
P. O. Box 1680
Niagara on the Lake
Ontario, Canada LOS-IJO
Hemp farming was a
thriving colonial enterprise that played an important role in the genesis of the world's
third largest nation. An essential home industry, hemp was grown in considerable
quantities to supply the cordage and textile needs for the vast farm, forest, fisheries
and mines that now form the economic engine of present-day Canada. Hemp cultivation was
encouraged by French and British colonial administrators to supply European military and
merchant marine needs for almost 400 years. As Canada is favorably situated within
latitudes of the globe most suited to hemp cultivation and blessed with well watered
parcels of fertile soil, it is no surprise that 'Canadian hemp' was the choice for
European purchasing agents seeking the finest quality naval cordage and heavy textiles at
the height of the golden age of sail (1750-1850). This, in turn, made possible a
golden age of Canadian hemp.
The sowing of legal hemp on a former tobacco farm in southern Ontario has allowed Canada, once more, to join the ranks of hemp growing nations. In June 1994, farmer Joe Stroebel and his partner Geof Kime owner-operators of Hempline Inc., sowed 5 varieties of low-THC hemp from Europe under license from the federal Ministry of Health on 6 acres (2.5 ha) of sandy loam soil. Their pioneering efforts inspired 12 other Canadian farmers to grow hemp in 4 provinces in 1995.
The pending reforms of Canadian law governing hemp will soon enable other farmers across Canada to sow hemp without the cumbersome paperwork currently required. Legislation dating from 1938 is being revised to advance progress for the agricultural sector while meeting our obligations to the international community. Canada is expected to release a comprehensive new drug policy in 1996 that may allow exceptions for the cultivation of hemp. However, Cannabis continues to be a controlled crop under present day Canadian law. There is no distinction made between marijuana and hemp. As the entire Cannabis plant, its derivatives and cellulose products (excluding sterile seed for canaries) are technically illegal, Hempline Inc. was unable to obtain reliable information concerning cultivation practices or methods from Canadian government sources who maintain no files on illicit crops. In order for their pilot project to get off the ground, Hempline Inc. turned to private-citizen hemp-activist groups such as H.E.M.P. Canada and the Hemp Futures Study Group, where they found both data and much needed encouragement. Prominent Canadian lawyer Allan Young helped to navigate them through an ocean of bureaucratic reluctance and legislative red tape to the point where they were ready to submit their application for the first Canadian hemp licenses in three generations. There are, of course, no grants or subsidies available for growing hemp in Canada, and Hempline Inc. was obliged to pay its own way, including police surveillance fees.
When Hempline's application to grow hemp began to take shape in early 1993, they were aware that the Federal government did not welcome their proposal and would take a strictly business stance in the matter. After careful evaluation and consultation with the Ministry of Health, crop specialists and law enforcement agencies (under who's jurisdiction the Cannabis plant falls), their initial application to grow hemp was seriously considered. There was no review body in place to process hemp applications and there was no precedent in living memory to base criteria for granting licenses. Special arrangements were required for monitoring the fields by federal and provincial police. This was deemed necessary as Royal Canadian Police experience with a government research project growing high THC Cannabis in 1971 that was a target for numerous thefts. Their sense of caution is therefore comprehensible, but apparently, they do not understand the non-psychoactive aspects of the industrial hemp plant.
Currently, Canadian hemp growers must have a license to cultivate hemp, a license to distribute Cannabis products, a license to import "narcotics" (hemp seed) and a license to import agricultural seed before they can sow. Under the terms of their license, Hempline Inc. was required to obtain a separate permit for each variety of hemp seed they imported, as well as secure additional permits to cultivate Cannabis and distribute the harvest to certified "end users" and still another license to export their hemp across international borders into the United States for special testing. It is hoped that formalities will be streamlined in the future as this application process, monitoring, and security exceed the time, cost and effort required to actually grow the hemp crop.
Law enforcement officers monitored every aspect of Hempline's project from importation of seed to delivery of the dried stalks to the end user. Samples of growing hemp were regularly gathered for analysis during the summer of 1994 to determine if the levels of cannabinoids were within limits set by the Ministry of Health Department of Dangerous Drugs guidelines. Low levels of THC were expected and found. There were no instances of theft or permit violation. Because of this, surveillance during the 1995 crop was relaxed somewhat.
Hempline Inc. endured as their first application was regularly sent back to them for revision. This caused a six week delay from their optimal sowing date of mid-April 1994. In spite of late sowing on June 1, germination was uniform and the fields were full. Traditional methods of soil preparation were employed and seeds were sown with a close spacing of 2-3 inches in rows 6-9 inches apart. A modified seed drill placed seed at a density of about 250 seeds/m2. Fertilizer and lime were applied prior to seeding to bring fertility and pH levels within ranges suitable for hemp. The plants grew 2-3 inches per day during one of the hottest and driest summers of the century. They reached an average height of over 12 feet (4.0 m) in only 75 days without irrigation.
Hempline Inc. harvested their second successful 18 acre (7.5 ha) crop of two Ukrainian varieties (YuSO11, YuSO13) this past summer divided between their original Tillsenburg plot, a second location near London, Ontario and a third smaller field. The fields were harvested using a conventional sickle bar attachment to a standard farm tractor as the male plants began to shed their pollen and well before the female flowers reach maturity. The license did not allow seed to form. The yield and quality were good ranging from about 2.0-3.5 tons of dried stalk per acre (5.0-8.5 tons/ha). This approximates modern hemp yields in Europe and Asia. Further field trials may well lead to an increase in both fiber quality and yield.
The hemp industry is sorely lacking machinery that will cut and bale hemp in one pass through the field. The design and development of such machines will make the hemp harvest advance beyond existing limits of efficiency. Designers could begin by copying the principles used in turn-of-the-century equipment exhibited in museums and the more modern equipment from Europe.
Hempline Inc. sent the major portion of their initial harvest to an Oregon Forestry product research laboratory where it was ground up, mixed with a binder and processed into sheets of 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) wallboard. This medium density building material was found to meet or surpass industry standards of strength and finish. Other experiments with the first hemp crop produced fist-sized super-compressed pellets for low smoke/high calorie fuel suitable for urban institutional heating plants. Additional experiments are still in progress and more experiments are planned for the output of the 1995 crop.
The 1995 growing season included additional participants. Gordon Schiefele, a research crop specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, performed a small (400 m2) planting density trial at Ridgetown, Ontario. The extrapolated yield was 2.7-4.8 tons/acre (6.5-12.0 tons/ha) which is high and probably results from the small trial size. Some ripe seed was also produced. Dr. A. Slinkard from the Crop Development Centre of the University of Saskatchewan also sowed three varieties on small (5 m2) test plots.
Dr. Joe Moes, a new crops agronomist with the Manitoba Department of Agriculture, along with the Manitoba Hemp Alliance sowed 6 varieties on 10.5 acres (4.2 ha) in four locations across Manitoba. Their yields ranged from 1.8-3.1 tons/acre (4.5-7.7 tons/ha). Fiona Briody of the Northwest Peat and Crop Company grew three varieties on 2.5 acres (1.0 ha) near Barhead, Alberta. Other small plots were also grown in Alberta and Ontario. In British Columbia one small farm of supposedly "low THC" hemp was raided and the grower arrested. No hemp cultivation licenses were issued in British Columbia.
It is anticipated that the Canadian government will issue many more hemp licenses in 1996 than in 1995. The arrival of hemp is encouraging to Canadian farmers facing declining farm income. As food imports from the USA displace such staple crops as cereals and oilseed from Canadian agricultural strategies, hemp looks very attractive to the farmer seeking new opportunities for the next century. Canadian large scale farming is readily transferable to growing hemp on a scale that cannot be easily matched in Europe. Access to the huge American market is also nearby. We remain on friendly terms with our trading partners since joining the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), whose collective policies favors North American grown fiber and penalizes foreign imports. No cotton can be grown in Canada, yet Canadians consume many millions of dollars worth of cotton goods each year grown primarily in the United States and Mexico. There is reason to believe that the United States will not allow Cannabis cultivation within this decade, as her trade and industry policies are wedded to the criteria dictated by its "war on drugs". All the better for Canada to be the first and only continental source of hemp. This should be a potent motive for the Canadian farmers to offer the most reliable and highest quality hemp to the biggest market the world has ever known. The 21st century may well see hemp fiber from Canadian farmers competing vigorously with cotton.