Hemp is deeply entrenched in the folklore of Polish peasants, and its uses
are probably as old as the Slavic tribes who first settled down to work the
land. Hemp cultivation has continued despite decades of North American
prohibition, and is on the verge of a big comeback. . .
Hemp In Poland
By Sasha Przytyk
In the spring of 1995, I seized a unique opportunity to spend the summer working as a hemp agriculture and research apprentice at the Institute of Natural Fibres (INF) in Poznan, Poland’s most important research center for fibre crops. During my stay I learned a great deal about the history and status of cannabis agriculture in
Polish Hemp History
Cannabis hemp, or “Konopie”, is a long-standing traditional crop in Poland, remaining legal throughout North American prohibition. It is deeply entrenched in peasant folklore, and its uses are probably as old as the Slavic tribes who first settled down to work the land. It is best known as a useful raw material for a variety of ordinary purposes and products, ranging from twine to cheap and effective insulating material.
There were over 50,000 hectares of hemp fields sown annually in Poland before the 1950s. Older Poles can often recall vivid memories of the lush, towering hemp fields that were part of their scenery as youths. If you ever thought a cornfield could provide a good playground for kids playing hide-and-seek, imagine a dark green forest of hemp plants, up to five meters in height!
Nowadays such fields are few and far between, though wild patches of “ruderalis” hemp are still a common find on Polish roadsides. These are short and bushy plants, sometimes containing significant cannabinoid levels.
Polish hemp cultivation has been in general decline for decades, suffering from the advent of synthetic fibres and cheap asian jute fibre imports. This has been more severe since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Poland’s former main client. The cultivated area has plummeted to an all-time low of less than 3000 hectares in 1995. However, it appears that this trend is about to be reversed, as a great deal of new interest is being directed at cannabis, and new applications have been found.
Cannabis seems to have escaped widespread cultural recreational use in Poland. Although it is not unknown to young urban Poles, it is not used nearly as widely as in Canada or the US. I met more than one senior who was familiar with the use of cannabis tea as a therapeutic agent and medicine. They were well aware that modern Polish hemp varieties don’t produce any significant level of mind-altering substances, and saw nothing wrong with growing a little patch of their own medicinal cannabis, usually ruderalis. Others reserved a spot in their backyard gardens for a few plants, based solely on their ornamental value.
Alcohol, of course, is the social intoxicant of choice in Poland. During my stay in Poznan I discovered that high-quality import hash was available, but buds were nowhere to be found. The legal status of weed was ambiguous; I was dismayed to learn that while there weren’t yet any laws outlawing simple possession of weed or hash, legislation was being prepared to change this.
What Poland hopes to gain from prohibition completely escapes me. Especially since Germany, Poland’s western neighbor and main economic partner, is rapidly decriminalizing marijuana possession and adopting harm-reduction policies.
Enforcing the proposed law will no doubt be impossible. For one thing, Polish police are unfamiliar with the weed’s odour and effects. I had this vividly demonstrated to me while headed for an evening on the town with three wacky Polish friends. Our tiny car was pulled over for a traffic violation, and while the driver spoke to the police officer behind the car, my friend lit up a pipe of stinky primo hash in the back seat. He grinned as he passed the pipe on to me: “No worry!” I couldn’t believe it, but I took a leap of faith and a long pull, if only for the thrill of smoking in front of a cop. Sure enough, the officer let us go on our way after issuing a ticket, totally oblivious.
The Institute of Natural Fibres has a long history of research surrounding fibre plants. Although hemp occupied a more central position in the Institute’s scope of activities until about ten years ago, it is still an important focus for the INF. It was encouraging to witness the beginning of a hemp revival in Poland, led by the Institute’s director, Dr Ryszard Kozlowski, and his team of scientists and plant technicians. They are well aware of the incredible renewed international interest and demand for hemp.
The INF’s reference library holds at least 120 of its own research papers dealing exclusively with the subject of hemp, and as nearly as many books. Research on hemp directed by the Institute has been focused on a wide range of topics over the years, including sowing and harvesting methods and machinery, fibre extraction technology, weaving and spinning technology, fibreboard production methods, farm machinery design, soil and environment health, as well as hemp breeding methods.
Although the direction hemp cultivation and breeding have taken in Poland is unique, it can undoubtedly offer some worthwhile lessons to countries like Canada, whose hemp industries are just beginning to be revived after decades of total dormancy.
During my apprenticeship at the INF, I became aware of practical methods and theory involved in hemp cultivation and breeding that I had not previously encountered in my readings on the subject. I took a particular interest in hemp breeding, and soon discovered that continuous genetic maintenance and improvements of hemp varieties are necessary to insure that they remain reliable for profitable fibre production, especially in the context of Polish practices. I seized the opportunity to visit hemp breeding stations and learn first hand what the selection process involved.
Poland discontinued the import of hemp seeds for sowing and breeding in order to standardize domestic hemp fibre production. The government has established a legal limit for THC content of 0.3%, (the same as the European Community) and requires that farmers register their plantations and use certified seed, of the sort available from the Institute of Natural Fibres.
There are only two varieties currently approved by the government, both of which were developed by the INF’s plant breeders. The INF is effectively Poland’s exclusive certified hemp seed provider, and so is solely responsible for providing farmers with certified high yield strains adapted to local conditions and technologies. This is a monopoly situation, where the farmer is kept artificially dependent upon the seed breeder.
The two registered domestic Polish varieties, Beniko and Bialobrzerzie, typically mature in late September and produce an average of 500 kilos of seed per hectare and 9 to 10 tonnes per hectare of dry stalk, although yields of up to 1200 kilos of seeds and 15 tonnes of stems have been registered. Cannabinoid levels are so low that they exclude any danger of surpassing the legal limit at any growth stage or appealing to cannabis smokers in any way.
Since 1958, the INF has supported a continuous, comprehensive breeding program, employing plant breeding experts and technicians at experimental farms located in different climactic zones across the country. At present, the INF’s hemp selection work is being carried out at just three locations. Lack of funding has virtually limited the work to the preservation and improvement of existing Polish cultivars.
It was a privilege to meet and interview the Institute’s accomplished hemp breeders, among them Dr. Benigna Jaranowska and Dr. Miroslav Kurhanski (now both in semi-retirement), who have been involved in Polish hemp breeding projects since the sixties. I found that the senior scientists in the INF’s employment provided a rich source of experience in hemp matters, and was delighted to learn through them the principles guiding the Polish hemp breeding program.
Since the beginning of the breeding program, selection work has been directed at three main goals: to increase the proportion of fibre in hemp stalks, to increase the quality (fineness and uniformity) of fibre, and to decrease cannabinoid content.
These goals are not always compatible in a selection scheme. Fibre content and quality are unrelated to flower potency, so that certain varieties of THC-rich varieties are high fibre yielders. If there were no legal limits on THC content, the hemp breeder’s task would obviously be much simpler. Neither does high fibre content imply good fibre quality; the higher the fibre content, the coarser the fibre.
Modern hemp varieties favour the mechanized harvesting process and produce superior yields and content of fibre, but often compromise the quality or degree of fineness. Plants positively selected for reproduction must be chosen while keeping all relevant factors into account. Only the best plants are used for further reproduction.
Cannabis is a very “plastic” plant, in the sense that many desirable or deviant characteristics can be successfully and rapidly made dominant through selection. Proof of this is in the enormous range of sizes, shapes, colors, growth habits, and potency, attributed to cannabis varieties from around the world.
Since 1958, the Institute of Natural Fibres’ breeding program has been focused on monoecious, or hermaphrodite hemp types. These varieties have different flowering habits than classical, dioecious (two-sexed) varieties, and develop both male and female characteristics on each plant.
Dioecious hemp strains yield sexually differentiated plants, each of which normally makes up half of the plant population. Male (staminate) plants typically ripen earlier and grow taller than females (pistillate). Although little or no seed is harvested from male plants, they produce finer fibre than females.
Only monoecious hemp is grown commercially in Poland, and there are several reasons for this. Monoecious hemp has a very low degree of variability among individual plants, as 95% or more of plants carry both male and female flowers and are sexually undifferentiable. This means that each plant can be harvested for both seed and fibre, and also provides for a very uniform, evenly maturing crop. This facilitates the mechanized harvest, field retting, and subsequent fibre and seed extraction.
Hermaphroditic cannabis plants also produce less mind-altering cannabinoids than their dioecious counterparts, and favour the selective breeding process necessary to obtain low cannabinoid content. The primary motive in the quest for THC free cannabis is clearly legal and not agricultural.
The INF has helped establish Poland’s national standards for rating the genetic purity of hempseed. This has been especially important in the maintenance of monoecious hemp, whose main disadvantage is its relatively unstable nature.
Monoecious hemp has a tendency to revert to the dioecious form when grown for several years in a row without selection. Each year the degree of differentiation between plants increases, with a higher proportion of non-typical or single-sex plants.
This becomes easily noticeable within two or three years, when one can see a few pure male plants wielding their flowers above the rest of the crop. These few males pollinate a large number of surrounding plants, whose offspring will undoubtedly include an increased proportion of single-sex plants, with possibly increased cannabinoid content.
For these reasons and others, the first year of planting requires high quality, certified seeds, guaranteed to produce a legal, uniform, monoecious crop.
To provide super-elite seed, the INF breeders must continuously maintain and improve hemp cultivars through selection.
In the book Breeding, Cultivation and Application of Hemp in Poland, published by the INF, it is explained that “throughout the whole vegetative period, detailed observations are conducted on growth, health and development of hemp, with special attention paid to blooming biology. During the blooming stage, the positive selection is performed, choosing only the typical monoecious plants for further breeding.”
Monoecious cultivar maintenance requires an elaborate system of categorizing cannabis plant types, in order to select only those with the most stable proportion of male and female flowers. The different flowering patterns in breeding plots are studied and categorized by INF scientists to help make the selection process more exacting.
There are up to seven types of flowering profiles, ranging from pure male to pure female with everything in between, which are used as guidelines in selecting desirable plants. The most desirable types are mostly female in appearance, especially the flowering tops, and only develop a few male flower clusters which rapidly release their pollen and fall off.
Testing for THC and other potent cannabinoids must be done at all stages of growth, to determine which plants should be removed due to higher content. Throughout the season, plant technicians repeatedly carry out a practical, simple test in the field to estimate the THC content of individual plants. They also use their senses of smell and observation to weed out the more obviously potent ones. Later in the season, as the plants approach maturity, a spectrography analysis is used in the lab to determine precise data on all the active compounds including THC, CBN and CBD (considered the most “dangerous”). Breeding material for the domestic Polish hemp varieties have been bred to produce less than 0.1% THC content. Note that the whole upper third of the plant is analyzed to obtain this figure.
In Poland and other East European countries such as the Ukraine and Russia, domestic hemp varieties and harvesting machinery have been designed to allow for the harvest of both fibre and seed from the same plantation. Only monoecious varieties are suitable for this type of application.
Methods differ significantly in Hungary and other South European countries, where dioecious hemp is grown for fibre and harvested before going to seed. This method insures uniform, top quality stalks.
In a 1994 interview with the Journal of the International Hemp Association, well-known Hungarian hemp breeder Dr Ivan Bocsa expressed a strong preference for dioecious cannabis strains:
“The natural state in which hemp appears was and is dioecious. Monoeciousness is artificial in hemp, it can only exist with the help of man, and without selection, the dioecious state will return in two or three generations. It is therefore very hard and demanding to keep 90 to 95 percent monoeciousness during seed multiplications. Apart from that, however, monoecious hemp is appropriate only when the crop is grown for so-called double use, ie. when both stem and seed are harvested.
“In Hungary and its neighboring countries, this double use is unknown. Here fibre hemp is grown as a dense crop which is harvested at the time of male flowering (“green hemp”), while seed production takes place at a low plant density and with completely different growing techniques.”
To produce sowing material, the same varieties of hemp are grown in separate fields, often at more southerly locations or lower altitudes to assure proper ripening of seed.
Dioecious varieties are also easier and quicker to breed than monoecious ones. Monoecious cultivars are inherently inbred, since 20% of them result from self-pollination and draw their characteristics from a single parent. This makes desirable characteristics take longer to select for. Dioecious plants each have a “mother” and a “father” from which they inherit their genes, and therefore draw from a larger gene pool than monoecious plants.
Monoecious cultivars are generally less productive than dioecious ones, because of inbreeding. Their unstable nature also produces a greater dependence on breeders. This is not the most attractive situation for farmers considering a new crop.
A similar system is in place in France, where monoecious hemp is also the norm. The sole official provider of hempseed to French farmers has a monopoly over the country’s supply of sowing material. This allows the government to establish quotas and limit the number of farmers allowed to grow hemp. The supply of raw materials isn’t ever allowed to meet the demand, and so the hemp industry can never reach its full potential.
This might not be the type of situation that hempsters in Canada and elsewhere are dreaming of. If a Canadian hemp industry is to be successful, then it should develop freely, in response to the real demands of business and consumers alike. Our legislators should be very cautious about how they decide to regulate the Canadian supply of hempseed. I say that the hempseed must be free!
I left Poland in September, stopping over in Holland for a week on my way home. While I was there, I met with Robert C. Clarke of the International Hemp Association, well known for his excellent manual on cannabis breeding, Marijuana Botany. To my delight, he invited me to join him for a chat at one of Amsterdam’s finer coffeeshops.
Seeing my keen interest in visiting Dutch hemp plantations, Clarke arranged for me to visit several hemp plantations in the north of Holland. These were hemp fields destined for paper and fibreboard production at Hemp-Flax’s pulping plant. Hemp-Flax is a young company owned by Ben and Alan Dronkers, the same father and son team who founded the Sensi Seeds co. I was fortunate to arrive precisely at the time of harvest, and I was impressed to see the modern German hemp balers in action.
The Dutch hemp industry, which was one of the country’s most important industries at one time, is undergoing a current revival. As we build our own industry here in Canada, it is essential that we closely follow new developments in Holland and elsewhere, so as to capitalize on the lessons they have already learned.
Predictably, getting back through Canadian customs with a suitcase full of hemp samples and books on hemp and marijuana was tricky. I might as well have had a marijuana leaf tattooed on my forehead.
As the young officer began to go through my belongings, and then my photographs, one by one, I embarked on a discourse about the promising future of industrial hemp in Canada. Soon, two more customs officers had joined in our little party, visibly interested in the subject. As always, I was glad to have an audience to whom I could relate my experiences with hemp. I was no longer a simple pothead, I had graduated to the status of “hempster”!
When asked the inevitable question: “Did you frequent any coffeeshops while in Holland?” I replied, “wouldn’t miss it for the world!” However, I assured them that because of my ever-so-obvious connection with hemp, it would be beyond crazy for me to attempt to bring any illegal samples back into Canada. I was sent on my way with a smile.
Interview with Professor Dr. Ivan Bocsa, International Hemp Association journal, vol.1, no.2, December 1994, pp.61-63
Hemp – An Alternative Crop, R. Kozlowski, J. Mankowski, B.Jaranowska, L.Grabowska, P.Baraniecki, Institute of Natural Fibres, Poznan
Diversity in Hemp, Etienne de Meijer, Bioresource Hemp Symposium reader, Frankfurt am Main, 1995
Breeding, Cultivation, and Application of Hemp in Poland, R.Kozlowski, B.Jaranowska, J.Tymkow, J.Mankowski, P.Baraniecki and L.Grabowska, Institute of Natural Fibres, Poznan, 1995
Recultivation of Degraded Areas through Cultivation of Hemp, R.Kozlowski, P.Baraniecki, L.Grabowska, and J.Mankowski, Institute of Natural Fibres, Poznan
Biological Principles for breeding non-narcotic Hemp, M.Kurhanski, G.Chrostowa-Kurhanska, Institute of Natural Fibres Yearbook 1994, p.,19
New Chance for Fibrous Plants, P.Baraniecki, Institute of Natural Fibres Yearbook 1994, p.130.