Ontario Goes Hemp

Dr. Alexander Sumach examines Ontario’s newest cashcrop. Photo Hemp Futures Study Group Archives

Ontario Goes Hemp


On the 7th of August, Canada’s hemp luminaries gathered in the midst of a Kent County hemp field, to celebrate unprecendented political and financial support for growing industrial hemp in Ontario.

by Dr Alexander Sumach

As America blows another $13 Billion dollars this year to battle the war on drugs, Canada writes a cheque to get hemp going down on the farm. Canadian hemp farmers continue to explore new opportunities, and this time they have the blessing of the big ducks in government, and public money for hemp research.

Imagine that! A government dowry for industrial hemp research begins a new era of fibre farming for Ontario.

The sun was shining in Kent County today. The hemp field seemed to be laughing as the breeze carved rippling smiles across its forty acre face.

Good things grow in Ontario

Nearly forty acres of luxurious hemp – a lusty bottle-green palisade of cellulose ? was a fitting backdrop for a historic “Industrial Hemp Field Day” which marked the acceptance of the weed of wonder into formal reality by the governing strata of Canada.

Here, on the lawn of the Laprise family farm in Kent County, Ontario, our hemp hosts, Jean Laprise and his partner Claude Pinsonneault, welcomed 500 specially invited hemp industry stakeholders to examine the fruits of their labour and hear the good news of things to come. Today, August 7th, the Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Honourable Noble Villeneuve, would formally announce the gift of a cool half million dollar grant towards basic hemp research, ending forever the chill of reluctance of the Ontario government to participate in the reimplementation of industrial hemp.

Hemp Field day: the breeze carved rippling smilesacross its forty acre face.

The field-day guests included hopeful hemp farmers from across the continent who mingled with corporate purchasing agents, agricultural bureaucrats, provincial and federal policy knitters as well as police officers ? all disguised as tourists.

“Save your suits and ties for your air-conditioned offices,” insisted our hemp hosts, “Relax, have a nice day.” This call for casual on their turf at once evoked the spirit of happy face without diminishing the seriousness of the task before them. Where previously the pious agrinaut had to pass through a wall of fire for permission to sow hemp, today the inspired hemp farmer sends a confident flaming arrow over the ramparts of legislative reluctance. Hope displaces horror as the transfer of responsibility for hemp passes from the pencil pushers to the earth stirrers.

The visitors were invited to handle the hemp sample exhibits and move freely among the elephant-sized cannabis plants in the nearby field. For many, this was the first time they had seen hemp growing tall and free, and were a little timid about approaching the mysterious cultigen they had only read about in magazines or seen on TV. However, their doubts quickly melted in the bright August sunshine and all were soon fawning over the mighty specimens of ultra-low THC hemp plants and hugging the enormous blonde bales of hemp set up at the edge of the field.

This was a very convincing display of the hugeness of hemp, the mega-jumbo dimension of delivered concrete evidence. Here was a glimpse into the trainload scale of production that is taking shape in Canada, for a crop that has dared not show its face for three generations.

Today’s the day for Hemp

That’s all high-school history now. Today, hemp has moved past the stale, old stigma of dope, and means hope for the future. The next stage of getting on with the job of bringing hemp to market is now underway. Today, hemp will be let out of its legislative cage and set free to fend for itself in the jungle of raw materials.

The big ducks in government have been watching hemp very closely for the three years since Geof Kime and Joe Strobel planted Canada’s first modern hemp in Tillsonberg. The big ducks are now convinced that hemp is a very good crop to get behind. Last summer, the Ontario Agriculture Minister himself visited the Laprise/Pinsonnealt test plots and was so impressed that he alerted his federal counterpart to green-light funding for hemp. The big ducks have quacked and the cheque is in the mail.

A Noble gesture

Hemp farmer Jean Laprise and Noble Villeneuve: kickstarting hemp in Ontario

The keynote speaker at the Hemp Field Day was the Ontario Minister of Agriculture and Food, the Honourable Noble Villeneuve, who brought greetings from his boss, Premier Mike “Chainsaw” Harris and the Ontario Cabinet. Villeneuve welcomed the crowd with the booming gestures of a very happy man.

He began by stating his strong interest in creating rural employment, and shifted to a checklist of hemp dynamics with a most excellent grasp of the nature of industrial hemp. Shuffling through the mandatory mantra of hemp as a renewable, recyclable, sustainable, environmentally friendly natural resource, the Agriculture Minister presented the case for hemp with the anxious poetry we recognize as the hempen hymn of the tie-dyed itinerant hempster-rebel addressing a bush party smoke ?em up.

Villeneuve continued with a crusty yo-ho-hoing of days of former glory, when colonial Ontario hemp “rigged European fleets, clothed armies and, uh, fed people.” He noted that this rich hempen legacy (including clever new machinery) was brought to an abrupt halt in 1938 when the Canadian government banned hemp, “along with its narcotic cousin, marijuana.”

Alluding to an antique copy of Popular Mechanics magazine, Villeneuve noted the forecast of a Billion Dollar Crop. And now, more than a half century later, hemp’s returning to Ontario farms. “Hemp can be made up into literally thousands of products for everyday use,” he tells us. The present market for hemp is worth more than $30 million a year and expanding rapidly, while the price of trees and imported cotton continues to soar, to the woe of raw material processors in North America.

Quack, Quack

None of these points are new ideas, but all of them are important because they are now official policy. This response from the province is a far cry from the icy reluctance it used to respond with when hemp was first offered to the big ducks of agriculture by wild and woolly activists with their Deadhead University degrees, zip-lock bags of seeds and handfuls of old-world hemp fibre. They were crazy to do it, but nuts if they didn’t.

Villeneuve concluded his hemp hurrah by formally announcing the Ontario government gift of a cool half-million dollars to kick start research and development for industrial hemp in the province.

The Agriculture Minister praised pioneer hemp farmers Kime and Strobel of Hempline, and applauded Laprise and Pinsonneault of Kenex for bringing hemp out of the shadows and into the light of day. Today the road was opened for big time fibre farming, and the ducks were very happy to see how well it all worked out.

Hemp Jeopardy

During the question period that followed, the Agriculture Minister was asked by a visiting American farmer if his office, “had received any communication from Washington regarding hemp?” Villeneuve replied curtly that he had not, and pointed out that Bill C-8 is a federal Bill ? implying that the fire is in Ottawa’s basement.

A woman artisan, passionate and poignant, asked about grants, funding, whatever, for cottage-industry hemp spinning. With the diplomacy of a MacDonalds’ District Manager, the Honourable Villeneuve recognized this as “processing an agricultural product” and directed her to his ministry’s $30 million Rural Ontario Job Creation Program, set up for exactly this sort of enterprise.

Next, a half-naked eco-savage landscaper student demanded why chemical farming, ruining the earth, and such a sacred plant as hemp? Like, what’s happening? A good point poorly presented, but nonetheless 15 seconds of fame, to which the Agriculture Minister replied “there are no provincial standards to define organic farming.” Perhaps young citizen Cane will become the ambassador for organic standards, inspired by the concept of no contest from the top.

Ontario joins Europe

Claude Pinsonneault presented his latest figures for world hemp production, which suggest that Ontario is in good company.

In 1996, Western Europe grew 32,000 acres of hemp. In 1997 hemp crops increased to over 50,000 acres. France grew 26,000 acres, Holland 18,000 acres, United Kingdom 6,000 acres, Germany 5,000 acres.

He noted that thirty world nations now cultivate and process hemp, and that China produces 80% of the planet’s hemp supply. Most people show support for hemp farming now, the days of doubt are well finished.

Pinsonneault reminds us that Bill C-8 with the hemp amendment passed into law on June 30, 1996, and noted the new momentum since the Hemp Regulatory Summit in Ottawa in March. By April, after pressure from the Canadian Senate, Health Canada promised to speed up the review process to allow farmers to begin growing hemp for commercial purposes in the 1998 planting season. The target date for the New and Improved Hemp Regulations is just after Christmas and, yes, there is a Santa Claus.

Hemp Sage Dr. Gordon ‘Santa’ Scheifele: “We’re uniquein North America, that we can consider this as a newagriculturalcrop.”

Santa Claus is coming to Ridgetown

Were we surprised when Santa Claus spoke next, disguised as Government Agronomist Dr Gordon Scheifele. He presented facts and figures showing how the last three years of experimental hemp performed in the field, the nuts and bolts of realistic yields and cost of production.

With his crisp white beard and jolly enthusiasm for the weed of wonder, Dr Scheifele brings thirty years of service and deep-dive research into improving corn crops and is clearly excited about what hemp will do for the farm and factory in this part of the world. His conservative Mennonite background makes him a good choice as agricultural conscience for the Ministry of Agriculture and Food in regards to the safety and value of the hemp crop.

He admits he was very wary of hemp when he first looked into it, and had to do considerable late-night meditation before he was comfortable with it, but he was soon able to distinguish hemp from marijuana. He tells everybody that “It’s a plant that God has given to us. For some reason, in our stupidity, we have kicked it around and almost buried and lost it. We’re waking up again, it’s coming back into the agricultural system.” Government hemp-sage Scheifele adds “We’re unique in Canada, in North America, that we can consider this as a new agricultural crop.”

The green giant

Photo Gordon Scheifele

Hemp farmer Jean Laprise’s fascination with hemp is but one facet of his machine-age renaissance approach to farming the food and fibre for tomorrow. He is well aware of the ancient intimacy of heaven and earth, and their offspring ? the farms of terra nova.

Jean Laprise operates a 1500 acre farm complex growing corn, soybeans and industrial strength contract vegetables for major food processing clients. Each year he plants enough tomatoes to give one to each and every Canadian, and at this level of scale and impact hopes to take a central seat in the next round of hemp, now that commercial cropping looks like it can proceed without incident.

Laprise just may do for hemp what he did for the humble brussel sprout: develop harvesting machinery and orchestrate this niche market crop into a paying concern, and then capture the major market share across the province.

Laprise is a realist-dreamer, a hard worker, a motivator of men to achieve his plans to bring hemp into the mainstream. The Laprise team at Kenex Inc, working with high-minded new crop researchers, such as Peter Dragla of Ridgetown Agricultural College, have taken it upon themselves to size up and figure out how to make hemp pay for itself and emerge winners.

Kenex is perhaps the best address on the continent to have hemp happen on a profitable basis before the turn of the new century. They welcome all worthy participants and see autonomous co-operation between all players as the way to keep things simple. Fierce realism goes a long way in achieving success. Even magic hemp needs a cash flow.

Kenex has imported some of Ben Dronkers’ brand new Dutch hemp machinery. They expect that further modifications will still have to be made before these iron angels will be ready to fly through the Kenex hemp fields next year.

Hemp seed ammunition

Kenex may soon be playing a big role in the hemp seed business as well. Acting as licensed seed importers and distributors, they will supply hemp farmers in the region with planting stock, sparing them from the red tape and delays involved. This step is perhaps the most important practical advance for the industry so far.

“Keep it simple,” says Laprise, and adds a footnote that pretty well sums up his philosophy: “To be sustainable hemp has to be profitable. If it’s not profitable, it’s not sustainable. If it’s not profitable, why bother?”

Sure shot Geof

This sentiment is shared by posterboy pioneer hemp farmer Geof Kime who has his own ideas about how to profitably sustain an infant hemp industry. Although hesitant to toss in his lot with the hemp goldrush response squad, he remains friendly and supportive of the Kenex plan.

Kime hopes to hemp hunt as a lonewolf entrepreneur, Gretskying into the eye of the storm to deliver his hemp to a short list of American fibre czars. The key word is “carpets” ? the first step on the path to hemp textiles. The US market is ready for hemp, the demand is high, the processors are few. Who can blame pioneers for striking out on their own?

Kime nurses his dream of building his own Ontario-based hemp facilities, and only hints at who he deals with and what he is doing. Kime is a skilled mechanical engineer as well as a farmer. His team is finishing up work on Kime-designed hemp machinery that will soon be churning out hemp products for export into the greatest market the world has ever known ? our continental playmate, do-you-want-fries-with-that #1 nation with attitude ? the USA.

Alice Bracegirdle of Ital Vital Creations: in the hempfield on Hemp Field Day.

It’s the NAFTA playoffs, and hemp is about to hatch. Kime may exhibit a tad more skittishness than your average hemp farmer, but he is more aware than most how soon the treasure may be lost to any shark able to fillet the minnows of hemp production. It’s as if a billion dollars would attract bad companions.

The world is in his pocket

As the crowd wilted in the heat, Larry Duprey charmed them with his big bear from Montreal, one-man-fashion show. He pointed to his rather normal looking outfit and rattled off the origins of each item. His pants were a world tour unto themselves: Chinese-grown hemp and cotton-blend denim, imported through the United States, cut and sewn in Hamilton, wholesaled through Montreal, retailed in Edmonton, worn in Vancouver, California and Europe, takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’ hemp.

Duprey sells a lot of hemp everyday and was among the first full-time, big-time hemp merchants to blow onto the homegrown hemp highway here in Beaverburg. He praises them that stirred hemp into happening and points to the new breed of true north-oriented Canadian hemp clothing designers, who are being escorted by world-beat textile flippers eager to team up with both source and savvy for the hemp that is now available in Canada.

Real numbers

Enormous blonde bales: a convincing display of thehugeness of hemp.

Modern Ontario hemp yields about fifteen tons of raw stalks per acre. After primary processing, one could reasonably expect three or four tons of finished hemp fibre. Under optimal conditions, up to seven tons of fibre per acre is possible in Ontario.

These are averages calculated at the Ridgetown hemp tests last year by Scheifele and Dragla. Up to twelve tons of fibre per acre was thought possible with higher yielding varieties and more favourable weather. All and all, good as any and then some.

Get real & get going

Hemp has been set free to roam the jungle but must fend for itself. “If it isn’t sustainable, why bother?” still rings in everyone’s ears as we gaze at the symphony of the hemp harvest and recall how we prosper with technology but continue to eat because of agriculture.

Seeing hemp return to the fertile fields of Ontario is a reminder that life is still not fair- parts of it are excellent. finis

For more information

Ontario Minister of Agriculture Noble Villeneuve, 77 Granville St, 11th Floor, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 1B3; tel (416) 326-3074

Kenex Ltd, RR #1, Pain Court, Chatham, Ontario, N0P 1Z0; tel: (519) 351-9922; [email protected]; http://www.kenex.org