Discreetly tucked inside a cornfield, six acres of cannabis gently sways in
the hot afternoon breeze.
In the stillness of the deep countryside I saw a dazzling green, a lush and
sturdy armada of thousands of cannabis plants, just breaking into
flower. We were among plants that towered high above our heads, fifteen
feet tall, way beyond the reach of our outstretched arms.
Whew! This was a lot of hemp to behold at one pop, and all of it’s legal,
shielded from the plundering hearts of the public at a location I have
sworn not to reveal.
Even though this hemp contains about as much verboten THC as a firehose, it
is probably wise at this delicate stage of hemp re-implementation to not
tempt the easily tempted. I am reminded that anyone foolish enough to
snatch a few sackfuls and get caught still stands to end up making license
plates in her majesty’s prisons. The law of the land does not, as yet,
discriminate between varieties of cannabis, whether they are innocent fibre
hemp or dream grease marijuana.
What Joe is growing here is strictly industrial hemp, the sober and hard
working brother of Mary Jane. There is indeed a strong family resemblance
between these two cannabis siblings, and it would take a laboratory
analysis to reveal the subtle differences in chemistry.
In my travels and studies I have examined many varieties of cannabis
growing under diverse conditions, both indoors and out. It never ceases to
amaze and amuse me just how different individual cannabis plants present
themselves at maturity. According to variety and conditions of growth,
cannabis assumes more diversity of form than any other plant that I am
six acres of cannabis sways in the breeze
I had called up Joe Strobel for a visit to see the hemp field, fully
expecting to be politely denied access to this legal minefield of a test
crop. Mere chit chat about hemp is one thing; securing an invitation for a
couple of mosquitoes to tour the blood banks is a very different matter. To
my surprise and delight, permission was granted for a photographer and
myself to look in on what we soon discovered had become Joe Strobel’s
Experimental Legal Hemp Ranch.
When we stopped on the highway to phone Joe for directions to his place, I
noticed the local Tillsonburg newspaper for sale at the gas station/snack
shack. Joe and his hemp plants were right on the first page. This whole
hemp business is regarded as a good thing in his neighbourhood.
Tillsenburg is tobacco country, or at least it used to be. As demand for
that smokable declined in recent years, Tillsonburg no longer dances to the
tune of King Nicotine and his Formally Enormous Cigarette Orchestra. Those
tobacco bucks are sorely missed in the local economy. Many farmers watching
it all go down fast are switching to other crops. Hemp looks like one of
the few crops that will pay for itself, unlike corn and beans which barely
do. A brave few have started to cultivate the curious Ginseng plant under
wood lathe shade, but it is a slow and expensive crop to bring to
market. Ginseng pays good, but it doesn’t pay fast. Hemp would pay the
Photographer Doormouse waxed nostalgic as he recalled how he had first come
to Ontario from out east as a youth to pick tobacco on a nearby farm. He
pointed out a smudged pickup truck of weary young men swilling Snapple with
hands heavily blackened by tar. They were on a smoke break.
In the days before chiropractors, the human spine received acclaim in the
song by Stompin’ Tom Conners about pickin’ tobacco …
My back still aches
when I hears that word …”
Tobacco continues to be cultivated in Tillsonburg, finding a ready market
with the young.
We were soon hopelessly lost and ended up stopping at the Tillsonburg
Ontario Provincial Police station by the highway to ask directions to the
Strobel residence. “So, going to see the hemp? Does Joe know you’re comin’?
Who’s your friend?” the duty officer coyly asks while sketching out a neat
little map on the back of a sheet of used office paper from the “we
recycle!” box behind the front desk. I found him to be courteous, though
strictly business. As a potential taxpayer, I was satisfied with services
We were off and on our way to see the crop of hemp, the first grown in
North America under government license in 50 years. This is the first hemp
to grow on New World soil since the second world war. We are pleased to see
it growing as free and as tall as it can without any fear or deception.
Hemp is not a new crop, not even to Canada. Cultivated by Europeans for the
almost four hundred years they have been in Canada, there is also evidence
that hemp was known and grown by Pre Champlainian Hurons in the lower Great
Lakes. Hemp was an early favourite crop for many uses in domestic colonial
life as well as a profitable export item for those endless European
wars. Ontario hemp was priced by the British who preferred to rig her
warfleets with Canadian cannabis in a bid to defeat Napoleon and assure
that Britannia ruled the waves. Thousands of prime land north of Lake Erie
were devoted to the growing of hemp. The Americans, (France’s ally against
the Brits) sent raiding parties into Canada to seek out and burn hemp
wherever it was found during the War of 1812.
It is a good thing that today hemp is not being called into service to
supply the wants of war. Instead, hemp is being evaluated for its great
potential as a material from the farm to supply what the forest previously
The path to peace and plenty has only recently received the ok. There is
still a lot of hard work to be done if this is to continue with the fresh
enthusiasm that it set out with. Hemp culture will have to really start
being serious in the marketplace and show this special material for what it
can really do. So far, so good. Hemp has been able to demonstrate that it
is high yielding and high quality.
Joe greeted us at the door to a chorus of dancing, barking dogs. We are
welcomed inside to meet Mrs. Strobel and her “from scratch” character dolls
and miniature houses, complete with eensie weensie furniture. They have
grown children and settled in Tillsonburg to pursue their dreams in the
house they designed themselves. It’s the only home for miles with a red
ceramic tile roof, built in the European fashion of “just once for keeps”.
Joe’s study-headquarters for operation hemp is just off the living room. I
see a hefty library of books and reports on his very busy desk. He has
decorated the wall with a calendar of a farm scene. There are no Bob Marley
posters anywhere to be seen.
We are sat down at the table and over glasses of water we hear of this
year’s hemp crop from the man who is actually growing it.
|Joe Strobel and Dr Sumach chatting among the sheaves|
“Very successful this year” says Joe, “in many ways even more successful
than last years crop.”
He is very pleased with the results and cannot conceal his satisfaction as
he reaches into his “box of tricks” to hand out pieces of experimental hemp
composite wall board, each about a half inch thick and the size of a record
They were produced at an Oregon Forestry Research laboratory, from hemp
that Joe grew last year. It had the look of polished oatmeal, but was
smooth and symmetrical. It looked good and anybody would agree it’s
strong. It’s just too bad there wasn’t more samples available.
Hemp fibres, pressed into hockey puck sized pellets, are being tested as
fuel for big institutional heating plants. They would be cheaper, produce
jobs, and they burn cleaner than oil or coal. The ashes are not toxic.
Hemp textiles are difficult and expensive to start. Lining up all the terms
and facilities for the North American Textile Playoffs is some years down
the road. Manufacturing cloth requires the best technical and social skills
any society can conjure up and maintain. Once hemp appears on the
industrial hit parade, it looks like it will snuggle up with cotton at the
top and hang on as a classic.
“Want to see the hemp?” Joe asks, putting his hempen doo dahs carefully
away back in the box of tricks. I recalled how “toys inspire Empires”.
“OK, follow the truck. I’ll bring the dogs, they love it out there in the
We tossed back our H2O coolers and followed Joe, eating his dust as we
thundered down farm roads flanked by tobacco fields, corn, and soybeans
here and there. We arrived at the site of the first hemp farm in two
generations and there was nobody there. This is not a government funded
anything… this is the dream of private people sticking their necks out to
make it real. Joe’s business card says Hempline, Inc. He and his partner
Geof Kime are the owner/operators, they are agrinauts returning to planet
hemp. Others may talk, but it is guys like Joe and Geof who are actually
growing the weed of wonder.
A well rendered whiff of Joe’s hemp rekindled memories of a colony of wild
ditchweed I once examined, in a forgotten corner of an abandoned farm that
had grown hemp for the war effort. Which war? I never found out. We smoked
a lot of it but failed in any way whatsoever to get stoned.
We called it “Hollywood Pot” fed the seed to some chickens who loved it and
threw the rest away. Those ditchweed flowers looked like pot, smelled like
pot, burned like pot, but there wasn’t anything there. It was not marijuana
as I understand it by a long shot. Joe cuts his hemp before the females
even show their stuff.
Standing on the edge of a field of hemp is a good thing to behold. A couple
of days before, Joe had made a few tractor passes around the perimeter of
the hemp with his cutting bar pulled behind his tractor. He took down a
couple of acres of an early maturing variety of hemp in a couple of hours.
The stalks lay along the ground like a hempen highway. They had turned a
matt corky brown colour, the result of but a few hot August mornings and
their early morning dew bath. The sparse top leaves had shrivelled up into
brittle blue grey birdsfeet that were already breaking away and falling to
The cut hemp was dark and flat and still. The living hemp was radiantly
green, thrusting ever upwards and swaying in the gentle breeze. It formed a
geometric cliff of living tissue that receded into the vanishing point
where infinity joins the horizon to the sky.
Joe had bundled up a dozen hefty sheaves of jumbo hemp and stood them on
end like a Flintstone teepee. This was spontaneous rural performance art at
|one of Joe's dogs frolicking in the hemp|
Joe’s dogs galloped through the hemp, wrestling all the way. Their antics
released enormous clouds of golden hemp pollen from the fading male
plants. If you have hayfever, keep away from hemp, or you might have to
learn the hard way how hemp is to ragweed what Godzilla is to Barney.
This year Joe and Geof grew six different varieties of hemp selected from
high yield, low THC strains from Ukraine and Hungary. Fertile Chinese hemp
seed is not available for love or money. China is the largest supplier of
hemp cloth, paper, cordage, and seed in the world. Perhaps they have
twigged onto the West’s fascination with hemp and smell competition to
their own industry.
Hempline Inc. applied for their license to grow a hundred and fifty or so
acres of hemp in 1995, and sourced and secured enough seed to do it. The
Bureau of Dangerous Drugs, advising the Federal Health Ministers Office,
moved too slowly and Hempline’s ideal sowing date in late April was
eclipsed. They were left waiting until the middle of May.
Obviously, the awarding of a hemp permit is not based on a successful
premiere sowing, good yields, and no problems with pilfering. Joe believes
that the police were satisfied with what he presented, and is frustrated
with the delays that can spell disaster for a farmer.
Last year, he had to inform the OPP before he cut his hemp so that they
could monitor the harvest. This year the OPP is happy just to know when he
was going out to cutting so they could come by “for a bit of a look.”
I sense that Joe is enduring a private nightmare as the RCMP and the OPP
squabble over which force has to do the surveillance of the hemp
fields. Hemp is still good old Cannabis Sativa on the books, controlled
under federal jurisdiction, and enforced by the Mounties. The Mounties
should be watching the hemp and guarding the harvest, but it is the local
OPP that ends up stuck with the task of protecting a field of weeds as if
it was a visiting head of state. Neither side relishes hemp patrol. One
slip up and they are incompetent soldiers in the war on drugs. “Hemp Watch”
comes out of their budgets and takes up valuable hours of enforcement
time. And nothing is happening. It must be duty that moves them, as common
sense was left behind away back there.
Although permission to grow hemp was granted to Hempline Inc, albeit late,
the proposed acreage was nixed in Ottawa. Hempline’s request was slashed to
a mere eighteen acres, half in Joe’s field in Tillsonburg, the balance to
be worked by Geof at a secret location outside of London.
No reason was given to explain the acre chop, but Hempline was glad to grow
hemp again. Armed with practical experience and shuffled expectations, they
sowed their hemp and took their chances that it would ripen after so late a
planting. It came up and grew tall as if nothing had happened.
|Joe and Sumach having another chat|
As Joe stands next to us surrounded by hemp, I hear the cheerful chuckle of
a good natured soul who loves what he does. Joe speaks with paternal
affection, always thinking ahead for the well being of his hard-earned
hemp. There’s more to be cut tomorrow, and lots more where this comes from
planned for next year.
Six other Canadian farmers received permits to grow hemp in 1995. Joe and
Geof welcome them, and are waiting to learn how they made out.
As far as using herbicides and insecticides, Hempline did not use any at
all on their hemp. Plants were grown in rows about seven or eight inches
apart, individual plants stood three or four inches apart in the row. This
arrangement produced such a dense canopy of shade that most weeds were left
behind to perish in the dark. Few weeds developed ripe seed.
The fields were sown to hemp using a standard seed drill. It took less than
a single day to plant all the different varieties.
The sandy loam soil of Tillsonburg had hosted continuous crops of tobacco
and was “a little tired.” Additional fertilizer was added, lime and sulphur
to adjust some “areas of variable fertility” to levels more to hemp’s
Corn is usually a hybrid plant. Each corn plant is an identical copy of the
grandmother variety, be it sweet corn, cow corn or even popcorn.
Hemp is not a hybrid. Each hemp plant is a distinct individual with its own
set of characteristics in fibre, oilseed, and euphoric resin. Because of
this, hemp is an indicator that reveals fluctuations of fertility of a
given field of soil. The vigour, height, and colour of hemp can reveal the
varying degrees of fertility in the soil it occupies.
“The 1995 crop of hemp didn’t receive as fortunate weather as last year,”
Joe tells me. “Too hot and dry for most of the growing season. The
temperature reached and held in the thirty to thirty-three degree range all
along.” Despite this, Joe says that this year’s hemp was “head and
shoulders above last year”.
His partner Geof up in London grew the same varieties of hemp seed, a
mirror image of the Tillsonburg operation. The London crop was as lush, but
not as tall as the Tillsonburg patch.
The contemporary hemp enthusiast will tell anyone who listens how “hemp is
4 times as efficient than trees for making paper.” This casual 4:1 ratio
should be held up for a closer look. It was, after all, calculated in 1918!
There have been great advances in agricultural science and methods since
then. Maybe it is even better than 4:1, it’s too soon to tell.
This is very important to the hemp farmer who looks toward the yield per
acre and price per ton as the signal to grow or not. Tree and cotton raw
material is very expensive to produce and transport. Good farming may be
able to squeeze more hemp from the ground than before. If the price of
paper pulp hits the $200 ton range, just watch the farmers racing to put
hemp into the field. Hemp can be grown on a scale many times larger than
Hempline’s experimental crops, using existing farm machinery. It is not
really a big deal to grow the stuff, the headaches come from the paperwork
and hassles from an uncompliant government. Joe, Geof, and the handful of
hemp farmers sprinkled across the country can produce hemp in a fraction of
the time it took to do the same job fifty years ago. This is Industrial
Hemp, and it makes a lot of sense, even up close.
All that remains to do is liven up the music these hemp farmers are obliged
to shuffle along with, all strings attached as required by law. Is there
anybody out there who views cannabis as the monster it is legislated to be?
It is a plant of many talents, and it is criminally stupid to ignore this
fact of natural life.
We can imagine that governing the forbidden is not an easy task. It is
easier for one’s career in the governing strata to lock a door than to
regulate its opening. The very fact that the door opened at all is a sign
that the WD40 of pro-hemp clamour has penetrated the rusty hinges.
Rather than dismiss the suits and their folly with a sneer and “We told you
so!” why not be completely outrageous (after all, “alternative” is so
common it’s now “mainstream”) and congratulate our employees for their work
as reluctant midwives to the birth of the infant industrial hemp
industry. Or at least thank them for keeping out of the way. In a strange
sort of fumble, it’s the advance of a rational peace concerning cannabis
and its future on the farm menu.
|radiant green hemp thrusting ever upwards|
One might well imagine how favourable reports of hemp are a slap awake for
those who seek to erase the cannabis plant from the face of the planet. The
war on drugs is starting to become boring, and that’s dangerous.
The farmer growing hemp has nothing to do with the brisk marijuana trade in
the cities and the affairs of the police. That’s another story. The hemp
farmers are hoping to grow again next year. I hope more farmers will try to
The return of hemp to the fertile fields of Ontario came thanks to those
who entered forbidden zones to grow the noble weed. Hemp’s success is
wafting on the free trade winds already… more players are coming up to
bat, the Feds are not making the hits they used to, and the crowd cries out
While at a garage sale I found a reprint of a popular guidebook for new
immigrants to the Canada of 1831. The author added this curious fact to
would-be heritage hosers …
“… Many of the cedar swamps are intermingled with ash of large growth,
contain soil of the richest quality and are calculated for the finest hemp
grounds in the world.”
Not far from the Tillsonburg launching fields, hemp a plenty was growing
all over pre-confederation Ontario. Hemp was commonly the first crop sown
on the first farms, right between the stumps, immediately after clearing
the bush. At that time, the hemp culture was encouraged by polite society.
Benevolent gentlemen (read rich white guys) dispensed hemp seed to the
Agrarian sector (poor farmers) along with information. Afterwards, they
gave out little medals and spot cash awards for the best hemp. Now they
send helicopters and give out little metal cages and extract spot cash
fines. (Of course that wasn’t for hemp- that’s marijuana).
Hemp can be grown by permit, although it’s tricky right now, because
everyone is swimming beyond the line. It’s a business, these hemp farmers
are not dissin’ the DOA and growing it for you to watch on MTV. Far from
it. Neither are they part of any government of big business agenda bend,
perish the thought.
What they are is Cyber Fibre Pioneers, and they will be growing hemp next
More of them.
Growing more of it.