TRANSCONTINENTAL FARM TOUR: Crossing Canada with Don Lotter

Hemp heaven… and hell: A story in two parts
Part 1: Industrial hemp’s benefits as fiber, oilseed and as food vs. barriers in U.S. production
Part 2: Conventional and organic hempseed growers make a go of it in Manitoba, Canada

By Don Lotter


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 plant.

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 (THC).

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 it.

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 it.

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 percentage.

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 roots.

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 organic seed.

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