Part 1: Industrial
hemp’s benefits as fiber, oilseed and as food vs. barriers
in U.S. production
Anyone who has been to one of the many hippie festivals that color
the North American cultural landscape has seen literature on and
heard speakers recount the litany of benefits and claims-to-fame
of industrial hemp -- the non-drug, non-marijuana variety of Cannabis
sativa. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew it on their
farms. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence
on hemp paper.
Due to its low lignin content, hemp fiber can be pulped using far
less energy and chemicals than wood pulp; and because of its natural
whiteness, it can be whitened with environmentally benign hydrogen
peroxide, instead of dioxin-generating chlorine bleach. Because
it is unbleached, hemp paper is acid-free and therefore lasts 10-20
times longer than wood-based paper – hundreds of years.
The litany goes on to textiles and construction products. Because
of its long fibers (commonly seven feet), hemp makes superior construction
products like fiberboard. Hemp can yield 3-8 dry tons of this superior
fiber per acre -- four times that of an average forest, whose wood
fibers average a measly 3/4 of an inch long.
Hemp fiber makes fabrics of superior quality, equal to or better
than linen. Hemp's fibers are longer, stronger, and more absorbent
than cotton, the crop responsible for some 50% of pesticides applied
to crops around the world.
Hempseed oil has the highest proportion (81%) and best balance
of total essential fatty acids, like Omega-3s and Omega-6s, of any
crop plant. Hempseed has a protein content of 25%, contains all
of the essential amino acids, and has the best protein balance of
any seed. The building blocks for globulins, the basis of our immune
system, are present in hempseed in a higher ratio than in any other
The litany also usually recounts the conspiracy of chemical, wood
pulp, cotton-based textile companies to surreptitiously include
industrial hemp in the 1937 Marijuana Tax Law, a law that effectively
eliminated industrial hemp from competing with their products. This
was done despite the fact that industrial hemp varieties have only
the tiniest traces (around 0.1%) of the marijuana drug, tetrahydracannabinol
Canada has not bought into America's irrational, and rather hysterical,
zero-tolerance anti-drug policy that maintains the ban on growing
industrial hemp, and in 1997 passed the Controlled Drugs and Substances
Act, which allowed licensed growing of industrial hemp. However,
farmers still need to jump through some significant hoops to grow
Most of the hemp grown in Canada is for hempseed for processing
to oils and meal. The bulk of the world’s fiber hemp is produced
in India, China, Russia, Korea and Romania. Manitoba has become
the main Canadian hemp province, with about half of Canada's hemp
acreage -- the bulk of it for hempseed.
The hempseed food and cosmetics industry is worth $20 billion –
approximately equal to the entire organic foods industry around
the world. Half of Canada’s 2.5 million pounds of hempseed
(2001) is exported to the U.S. Raw hempseed is pressed to extract
oil which is used as a food oil, and for cosmetics. The leftover
meal from the oil extraction is increasingly in demand for animal
feed, especially pet foods. Hempseed is also dehulled and sold as
“hempnuts,” usually vacuum packed because of the high
oil and protein content. Hempnuts’ consistency and color is
very similar to pine nuts, but the kernel is much smaller, and the
taste is pleasant and nutty.
Hemp acreage peaked in 1999 then fell precipitously because of
market problems. Part of the problem has been the U.S. zero tolerance
policy with regard to the traces of THC that can be found in hempseed
products – amounts too small to have any drug effect. In 2002
the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency placed a zero-tolerance ban on
products that contain even minute traces of THC. In August a U.S.
court stalled the DEA’s zero-tolerance policy with regard
to imported industrial hemp products, ruling in favor of a coalition
of hemp product importers challenging the policy.
The zero-tolerance policy of the U.S. DEA frustrates Canadian growers
and everyone else in the hemp industry, as poppy seed sold in all
grocery stores across the U.S. contains traces of opium. Canada’s
policy is more rational, allowing 10 parts per million THC in products.
Part 2: Conventional and
organic hempseed growers make a go of it in Manitoba, Canada
Paul Bobbee, hempseed grower and entrepreneur,
is a fourth generation farmer near the prairie town of Arborg, Manitoba,
about 90 minutes north of Winnipeg, between the massive Lakes Winnipeg
and Manitoba. Paul descends from Ukrainian immigrants who settled
in the area 100 years ago. Ukrainians first moved to the forested
areas of Manitoba to the northwest of Arborg, but after a decade
or so, found the soils too rocky and poor. They resettled in the
Arborg area, drained the swamps, and planted wheat and barley.
In addition to being a farmer, Paul is founder and co-owner of
Triple B Seeds Inc., which specializes in processing hempseed and
flax into oil, meal, and by-products. He grows hemp on his family
land as well as contracting out to neighboring farmers to cultivate
Paul started growing hemp in 1999 after its legalization in 1997.
Obtaining a license from Canada’s Ministry of Health to grow
industrial hemp is not easy. Paul showed me the reams of paperwork
needed for licensing. A background check is done on the licensee,
and anyone with a criminal record is disqualified. A local police
check is done as well. Global positioning system (GPS) coordinates
of the corners of every hemp field must be given.
Paul and many other Manitoba farmers got their start in 1999 when
a multinational company, Consolidated Growers and Processors Inc.,
invested heavily in contracting farmers to plant hemp for hempseed.
Thirty-two thousand acres were planted. The anticipated U.S. market
for the harvest was never to come through, however, and the company
closed down its Manitoba operations and cut loose its 230 contracted
Manitoba farmers, owing them millions of dollars.
The following year the Manitoba hemp acreage was a tenth of the
1999 size. Thousands of tons of hempseed sat in storage from the
1999 crop. Hempseed does not store well due to its high oil and
protein content. “Just this year we finally sold the rest
of our 1999 crop for birdseed,” says Paul.
Agronomically, hemp is a robust crop, as this dry year is illustrating
-- the hemp crop is thriving while some of the other crops, such
as flax, are flagging. However, hemp doesn’t like wet feet,
and the 2001 crop was down 50-70% because of higher than normal
spring and early summer rains.
Most hempseed varieties are imported from Europe -- Ukraine, Poland,
France, Finland, Romania, and Hungary. Paul grows a short Finnish
variety for oil in one field, and in several others has taller Ukrainian
varieties for both meal and oil.
Canadian hempseed breeders have been developing their own varieties
– targeting essential fatty acid profiles, seed yield, short
stature, and low THC levels.
Hemp needs a good dose of fertilizer, according to Paul –
70 lbs per acre of elemental N and 40 of P. No herbicides are registered
for pre-emergence use on hemp. Hemp is well known for its weed suppressing
abilities. Several herbicides are registered for spot spraying,
and this is the main reason why Paul grows conventionally. Weeds
that get out of control are just too difficult to deal with without
herbicides. Clean fields are important.
However, strong demand for organics has driven the hempseed industry
to produce about one third of its crop as certified organic, certainly
the highest proportion of any food crop, and close to the herb industry
Peder Jensen is growing 240 acres of organic hempseed for
Triple B Seeds. Peder, who emigrated from Denmark in 1983,
has nearly 1000 acres of crops down the road from Triple B Seeds,
about half organic and half conventional. In addition to hemp, he
grows faba beans, soy, and millet organically, and wheat, canola,
yellow peas, and barley conventionally. The faba beans go mostly
to Egypt, the soy is for natto miso, and the yellow peas are the
dry kind, like split peas. Peder is transitioning to organic and
is still learning the ropes. As soon as the soil is dry enough in
the spring - this year is was late April - Peder does weekly deep
cultivations through May, in order to deplete the weed seed bank.
At hemp planting, around June 1, he does a final cultivation, which
can be done with the air seeder, seeding the hemp at two inches.
When the hemp crop is at least 1½ inches high he uses a tine
weeder a couple of times before the hemp is tall enough to shade
out weeds. In fields where the previous crop didn’t leave
enough nitrogen, hemp has trouble out competing weeds. In the future,
Peder plans to precede hemp with faba beans where possible, which
leaves more soil nitrogen.
Damage to the hemp crop roots by soil-borne cutworms (one of several
Lepidopteran species that are common in Manitoba) was particularly
bad this year. Large patches of weedy ground were evident where
cutworms did their early season damage in Peder’s hemp field.
Mustards, lambsquarter, Canada thistle, quackgrass, sow thistle,
and wild oat are the worst.
The moth stage of the cutworm feeds on late blooming crops like
alfalfa, and lays its eggs in the soil of surrounding fields. Alfalfa
is grown here for seed, providing an ideal feeding source for the
moths. The soil-borne larvae emerge in the spring and feed on crop
Peder’s current strategy where cutworm damage is too severe
to keep the crop, is to disk in the crop and plant white millet
in mid- to late-June. Peder talked about non-chemical strategies
for cutworm. As is so often the case, there is a need for an early
warning system via agricultural extension. The conditions for cutworm
infestation differ every year depending on temperature, moisture,
host crop dynamics, etc. An early warning system would allow organic
farmers to take precautions, like applying Bt.
By the beginning of September the hemp crop, a tall Ukrainian variety,
is seven feet tall. The long and enormously strong fiber of the
hemp plant necessitates the use of the old, conventional kind of
combine for harvesting the hempseed. Hemp stems have wrecked harvest
machinery, especially the newer types of combine. Paul modifies
his combine by taking the feeder chain off and using a continuous
belt. It is also necessary to protect the combine machinery with
sheet metal plating. Peder contracts back to Paul to harvest his
hempseed in order to avoid damage to his combine.
The hemp plant stems are usually baled for sale to various industrial
users. However, lack of a market has caused bales to back up on
Paul’s land. He and other hempseed farmers are awaiting the
construction of a fiber processing plant. Until then, Paul is not
baling the stems, as it costs $10 a bale. This year Peder will roll
down the five-foot long stems and in the spring will burn them.
“Not the best solution, but lacking a market for the stems,
it’s all we can do,” says Peder.
Hempseed yields in a good year are 1,500 lbs/acre for conventional
and half of that from organic fields. Paul considers the 50% lower
yields of organic hempseed to be attributable to inability to get
enough nutrition to the crop, especially nitrogen. However, it should
be remembered that experience with a number of other crops has shown
that organic yields catch up to within 10% of conventional after
a few years of agronomic fine-tuning. Organic farmers don’t
have the extension backup that conventional farmers have had over
the last 50 years, so it often takes a few years for the cutting
edge farmers to tweak the organic agronomy of a crop.
The price premium for organic hempseed exactly reflects the yield
difference: 40 cents per pound for conventional and 80 cents for
Perhaps someday Americans will realize what they are missing out
on by allowing a few anti-drug zealots in the government (along
with the lobbying of threatened companies) to continue to ban this
remarkable crop, with its enormous potential to produce high quality
products at a low environmental cost. Meanwhile, Canadian farmers
are going to cash in on this potential.
Don Lotter has a Ph.D. in agroecology and has worked in sustainable
agricultural development in North America, Latin America, and Africa
over the past 25 years. He can be contacted via his website www.donlotter.com