Canada's Cannabis Farmers

Contrary to popular belief , it is not illegal to grow cannabis in Canada...
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Canada's Cannabis Farmers

  • Story by Dana Larsen
  • Photographs courtesy of the Manitoba Hemp Alliance, the Northwest Peat
    and Crop Development Association, Gordon Schiefele, and Brian Taylor.


Contrary to popular belief, it is not illegal to grow
cannabis in Canada as long as you have a license issued to you by the
federal Minister of Health. For over fifty years, the Ministry of Health
has refused to give licenses to anyone aside from police forces, presumably
for the purpose of teaching new recruits what they must seek out and
destroy.


Last year, Joe Strobel became Canada's first modern farmer to receive a
cannabis cultivation license, and he grew six acres on his farm in
Tillsonberg, Ontario. This year, seven different Canadian farmers and
organizations received licenses to grow different amounts and varieties of
cannabis. I spoke to these pioneering cannabis farmers, and what follows is
what they told me about the current state of licensed cannabis cultivation
in Canada.

ONTARIO

Joe & Geof


Joe Strobel and partner Geof Kime have formed a company called Hempline
Inc., and this year they grew six different types of cannabis with seed
that they imported from Ukraine and Hungary. Joe and Geof were able to
share their imported seed with some of the other farmers that could not
import seeds themselves.


Hempline grew a total of eighteen acres of cannabis, half being maintained
by Joe Strobel and grown in Tillsonberg, and the other half being managed
by Geof Kime and grown in London, Ontario.


Dr. Alexander Sumach interviewed Joe Strobel about this year's crop, and
his in-depth article can be found
here.

Both male and female plants can be seen clearly in this photo


Gordon & Claude


The other license granted in Ontario went to Gordon Schiefele in
Ridgetown. Gordon is a Research Scientist for the Ontario Ministry of
Agriculture, and he studies alternate crops for the Ridgetown College
Agricultural Technology Department.


Gordon was contacted by local farmer Claude Pinsonneault, who wanted to
cultivate hemp but couldn't get a license, as his security was not good
enough for the RCMP. Gordon supported growing the hemp in the college
research area, and the RCMP agreed.


Gordon and Claude used seeds imported by Joe Strobel, as they only have licenses for the cultivation and distribution of cannabis, and not for the importation of seeds. They received approval on June 12th, and began planting their seeds the next day.


They are growing six varieties of seeds in a tenth of an acre, with three
different seeding rates and four replications. They finished harvesting on
August 18th. Gordon and Claude left a small patch for further seed
development, which they hope to harvest in mid October.

This last remaining patch of Gordon and Claude's cannabis
crop was left standing for seed production.



Cannabis needs to be "retted", or softened and broken down by exposure to
water, so that the fibre can be separated from the pulpy core.


Samples from the crop were retted three ways. Some were bundled into
sheaves and left to stand upright in the field, others were cut into swaths
and laid out horizontally, and some stalks were also brought indoors for
water retting at room temperature.


The cannabis was planted at two different seeding rates. Those sown at the
high seeding rate of fifty thousand plants per acre grew from five to seven
feet tall, and yielded 3.3 to 4.8 tons of dry matter per acre. The low
seeding rate of thirty thousand plants per acre produced plants from six to
nine feet tall, with a yield of 2.7 to 4.2 tons of dry matter per acre.


The varieties are also being separated into seed, leaves, and stem
components to determine the percentage of stems in the total dry matter
production. Preliminary data indicates that 40% to 50% of the total dry
matter would be from stems.

MANITOBA

Martin & Moes


There are two licensed hemp farmers in Manitoba. The first is Dr J Moes, a
New Crops Agronomist in the Manitoba Ministry of Agriculture.


According to Martin Moravcik, owner of The Hemp Exchange and active member
of the Manitoba Hemp Alliance (MHA), the Manitoba Ministry of Agriculture
was convinced to support agricultural hemp by university students that had
been taught their stuff by the MHA.

Martin Moravcik of the Manitoba Hemp Alliance



Martin told me he learned about hemp from the 10th anniversary High Times
issue, in an Utne Reader sampler. Since he had previously imported
clothing, he used those skills and contacts to help set up a hemp business,
a store called "The Hemp Exchange".


Martin and his crew spent eighteen months on research and inquiry into
getting a license to cultivate cannabis. Martin said that he needed "a
slugger" to achieve success, and that slugger came in the form of Dr. Moes.


"He put his name to the document, and we needed provincial support to get
federal approval."


They grew six different varieties over ten and a half acres, two types each
from Ukraine, Hungary, and Poland. The allotment for each ranged from one
sixth of an acre to four acres.


Martin told me that the plants smelled like marijuana, and even had
crystals like good pot. Although he hadn't seen the lab results when we
spoke, he doubted that it actually contained significant levels of THC. If
it did, it would have been destroyed by the RCMP.


Martin told me that the MHA is a non-profit organization, that it is
cooperative and competitive. He also explained that he has a standing order
for a hundred thousand tonnes of hemp stalk, which he figures at
twenty-five thousand acres.


The Mysterious Manitoban


Manitoba's other cannabis farmer did not want to speak to me, and also
asked that I not reveal his name or city. He told me that he was in a
"unique situation" and that "maybe next year" he would be able to explain
that situation to me in more detail.

Members of the Manitoba Hemp Alliance drowning in a sea of green



Given the difficulty of obtaining a license to grow cannabis, I have
sympathy for someone who does not want to endanger that process by
discussing their work with a magazine like ours. On the other hand, opening
up the system for public review can only strengthen it, and it is
unfortunate that the present system is so prohibitive that even one of the
seven farmers feels he cannot risk publicly discussing his activities at
all.

SASKATCHEWAN


Slinkard & Saskhemp


The only hemp license in Saskatchewan is in the name of Dr. A. Slinkard of
the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan in
Saskatoon. Dr. Slinkard told me that his job is to investigate and research
possible new crops for Saskatchewan farmers.


He was approached by members of what later became Saskhemp, and put his
support behind their efforts to get a license.


They received their permit on June 13, and quickly began planting three
varieties of cannabis which they imported from the Ukrainian Fibre
Institute. Although they received extra seed from Hempline, they were
already facing a late planting, and since they had received no outside
funding, the extra seeds were not used.


They sowed their small crop with two different seeding rates, and with four
replications. Each plot was one and a third meters by four meters.


The plants were not yet at maturity when we spoke, but Dr. Slinkard told me
that he would be looking at fibre yield and dry matter yield, most likely
beating the stalks by hand to break them down into their component parts
for analysis.


He also told me it was a long struggle to get a license, and strongly
recommended that anyone who is applying for a license should "start early!"

ALBERTA

Three week old cannabis plants on the Northwest Peat and Crop Development
Association test plot


Briody in Barrhead



There were two legal cannabis crops grown in Alberta this year. One was
tended by Fiona Briody of the Northwest Peat & Crop Development Association
(NPCDA) in Barrhead.


Fiona's work with cannabis began in January of 1994. Jeff Shurie of Hemp
Canada came to the annual meeting of the NPCDA and explained to them the
virtues of cannabis hemp. The directors supported the idea, and began the
process of applying for a cannabis cultivation license.


Fiona told me that it was a "long, difficult, and frustrating process" to
get the license. They had hoped to be planting last year, but it took over
eighteen months of work before their license was finally granted.


They grew three varieties over two and a half acres, using seeds imported
from Hemcore in England, and also from France.


Fiona told me that the primary interest of the NPCDA is in hemp fibre for
pulp and paper, given the high number of such mills in the region.


Specifically, they are trying to achieve three objectives. First, they want
to evaluate low THC cannabis in Albertan conditions. Second, they want to
develop the agrinomic practices necessary to commercially produce
cannabis. Third, they want to evaluate the potential commercial uses of
cannabis.


A pulp mill is currently testing their crop, but Fiona explained that
cannabis also needs the support of cottage industries to survive and become
a successful crop.

A wall of hemp awaiting harvest



Fiona told me that the soil was powder dry when the seeds were planted, and
that considering this, she was quite happy with the results. Like the other
farmers, she harvested her crop at different times, testing the variations
in quality and quantity.


Over the eighteen months that she has been involved with cannabis, Fiona
told me that she has seen public interest in the plant grow
drastically. "People know what its about, even younger children. Public
knowledge has come a long way, and could change more if handled properly."


She suggested to me that the Canadian system could easily evolve into a
system such as that in England, where cannabis is grown in larger
quantities. Although it is still only allowed under license there, it is
still not nearly so prohibitive as the Canadian system.


Like every other farmer, Fiona made it very clear that she was not at all
involved with the question of legalizing the use or production of high THC
cannabis. She told me that as far as her organization was concerned,
marijuana is a separate issue from hemp, and not at all their area of
concern.


The Other Albertan


The other Albertan farmer who received a license to grow cannabis asked me
not to reveal his name or city. He is afraid that he will have problems
with foolish people trying to raid his crop if they realize that their
neighbour is a legal cannabis farmer.


He did tell me that both he and his wife are University educated and have
over twenty years of farming experience between them. They have been
involved with developing other crops, and have helped to see them through
from research to widespread use.


Despite these credentials, he told me that "the bureaucracy made it clear
it would rather we just went away." Nevertheless, he ultimately received a
license to grow a third of an acre of cannabis, to import the seeds
necessary to do this, and to distribute the plant materials to other
licensed organizations and individuals. His seeds were a Hungarian variety
imported from England.

Young plants growing in Barrhead, Alberta



He told me that he is primarily interested in producing fibre board from
cannabis. He wanted to see if low THC cannabis could be successfully grown
for this purpose in Alberta, and he feels that he has clearly shown that
cannabis can grow well in his region and merits further research.


Unfortunately, he described the current situation as a catch 22. He
explained that it would be impossible to prove that there is a demand for
cannabis textiles without there being an infrastructure and a reliable
supply. Since there will be no producers of hemp cultivation technology
without a supply of hemp, and the supply cannot be created without the
necessary infrastructure, it will be difficult for hemp to establish
itself.


He explained that the reason hemp textiles are predominantly produced in
Asia and Eastern Europe is because those regions have a large source of
cheap labour. Without sophisticated technology, hemp is a labour intensive
crop, and the technology will not become widely available until there are a
significant number of farmers willing to purchase it.


His interest in cannabis came about as a result of a number of factors. He
explained that there are shortages in the regular supply of pulp wood in
his area, pulp prices are rising, and he has seen the logging trucks
heading out to BC. He had heard and read anecdotal stories about hemp,
which he described as having a "religious zeal" about them, claiming that
"hemp can save the planet".


When I asked him if his research had told him whether or not hemp could
save the planet, he told me that the only conclusion he could draw was that
hemp seemed to grow well in his particular location and situation.


Despite this, he told me that "as long as Health Canada has control, we're
a long way from commercial production." He explained that he thought the
licensing system was far too cumbersome, and that it would make more sense
to have the necessary licenses issued by the Minister of Agriculture, who
would presumably have more of an interest in promoting the reintegration of
a new commercial crop.


He explained that all of the researchers involved with the project had to
be licensed, including those who only came into contact with the stripped
cannabis stalks. As with all of the other farmers, all of the plant
material had to be destroyed after it had been tested and examined. "For a
small project, it was large amount of paperwork."

Seedlings struggling to survive in a harsh world



Like the other farmers, he and his wife have purposefully distanced
ourselves from the pro marijuana lobby. He explained that this was not from
any ideological reason, but because "what we're doing is essentially
agricultural in nature." Although he agreed that legal marijuana would
certainly "open the door" for commercial hemp, he didn't think that it was
a necessity. He suggested that Canada will ultimately adopt a system
similar to that in some European countries, where hemp production is
licensed and more widespread than in Canada, while marijuana is still
prohibited.


He told me that he will apply for a license next year if either a partner
for a joint venture or other financial backers can found. As with any other
research crop, all the cash flowed outward, and he explained that a great
deal more capital will be needed to complete the full reintegration of
cannabis into Canadian farms.

BRITISH COLUMBIA


Busted in BC


No cannabis cultivation licenses were granted in British Columbia this
year, although a valiant effort to obtain one was made by the Granby Hemp
Co-op, based in Grand Forks. The fact that they were led to believe they
would receive a license before being ultimately refused has caused them a
great deal of difficulty.


Brian Taylor, the information officer for the co-op, explained that
"officials repeatedly promised to give us an answer before the end of the
growing season. Over the past two months [May and June] they have refused
to answer our calls. The official directly in charge of our application
promised us an immediate answer and then went on vacation."


Brian said that their organization had been "lied to, misled, and set up"
by officials from the Ministry of Health, who had "done everything in their
power to undermine our efforts and discredit our group."


The Granby Hemp Co-op has a high level of support within the Grand Forks
community. Brian Taylor explained that

The Russian community, about a third of the population, grew hemp in Russia
and brought it with them to this valley. The local historical Grist Mill
has a hemp and flax seed press. This year is the hundredth anniversary of
the Doukhobors burning their guns in Russia, and hemp clothing, ropes, and
hemp shoes are some of the heritage items that will be on display here
throughout the year.

The community was in shock after the announcement last November that the
sawmill would be reduced to one shift and may soon be closed. Pope and
Talbet is the largest employer in town, and much time and energy is going
into finding new ways to revitalize the economy of the valley. Hemp has won
the support of local politicians and volunteers as one on the possible
answers to economic recovery. Our vision for Grand Forks would make us the
seed basket of the West...

Brian Taylor poses among his illegal crop of low THC industrial cannabis



Since the Granby Hemp Co-op had expected to receive a license, they
arranged for the importation of 320 kg of cannabis seeds. The seed was
being held by the RCMP Drug Section at the Vancouver International Airport,
but the BC Ministry of Agriculture has offered to take possession of the
seeds and arrange for their safe storage until the 1996 growing season.


As a result of the great difficulties that the Granby Hemp Co-op faced in
trying to obtain a cannabis cultivation license, Brian Taylor has decided
to take a somewhat more aggressive approach to the situation. Acting
independently of the Granby Hemp Co-op, Brian has planted cannabis on a
publicly visible patch of his property so that it spells the word "hemp".


Brian also sent Diane Marleau, federal Minister of Health, a parcel
containing unprocessed leaf and stalk from his plants, as well as cannabis
clothes, paper, and viable seeds. He alerted the local RCMP to all of his
actions, and was charged with cultivation and trafficking just before this
magazine went to press.


Although it is pathetic that Brian will have to go to trial to defend his
right to grow a useful crop, this will also provide another opportunity to
attack the prohibition of cannabis in the courts, from a unique legal
angle. We will have more information on the developmnt of Brian Taylor's
case in our next issue.

IN CONCLUSION


Brian Taylor's tribulations notwithstanding, this was a banner year for
legal cannabis in Canada. All of the farmers told me that cannabis met or
beat their expectations, which should lead to an even greater demand among
Canadian farmers to grow this potentially lucrative crop.


The possibility that cannabis hemp could soon be growing from coast to
coast is probably much better than most people realise. Last year there was
only one legal cannabis farmer in Canada, this year there were
seven. Although it is impossible to predict how many more licenses will be
issued next year, there seems to be good prospects for a dramatic
increase. The need for a legal cannabis industry in Canada is increasing
every day. Let's work to support our farmers, so that they will be able to
grow the crops necessary to meet this rising demand.

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