A Marvelville couple who grew hemp for the first time after it became legal this year plan to try again after seeing most of their 10-acre crop wiped out due to heavy pooling of June rains.
Jeff and Bev MacDougall, who operate a small mail order business called Canadian Hemp Wares Co. from their 50-acre certified organic farm, suffered the loss of 90 per cent of their plants grown for fibre and 60 per cent of plants grown for seed.
Jeff said his heavy clay soil kept water on parts of his fields for up to three weeks and told The AgriNews "the feet of hemp plants can't stand to stay wet."
The plants that survived are doing very well, added Bev, with some reaching eight feet in height, encouraging them to give the controversial crop a second chance.
Meanwhile, with no water problems to speak of, a coalition of several Pontiac County hemp growers now face what may turn out to be the toughest part of the venture... locating markets.
That's the chore now at hand, said Tineke Kuijper, one of the growers and spokesperson for the group, who sees hemp production and processing as an opportunity for regional economic development.
"We're now exploring possibilities with some large and smaller processors," said Kuijper, adding local farmers may pay to cold press harvested hemp seeds and then attempt to sell the oil. One prospective market for durable, absorbent hemp fibre is livestock bedding, particularly for horses.
At Kuijper's instigation and as a pilot project, the novice growers last May planted 12 acres in hemp near Shawville after cultivation of the plant was fully legalized by Health Canada which controls the crop under strict licensing conditions.
Kuijper said it wasn't too difficult to convince her colleagues to try hemp because of its value as a rotational crop - "it loosens up the soil" - its traditional high yield, and its environmentally-friendly
qualities: "We used no herbicides, no pesticides and just a bit of fertilizer."
The crop is coming along well and harvesting should begin at the end of the month, Kuijper said.
Sowing was staggered and plants now stand between one and two metres in height; several varieties were planted, about three quarters for seed and one quarter for fibre.
"We're sure that curiosity will bring a lot of volunteers out for the harvest," she said, adding the top parts of plants will be combined and a sidebar cutter will be used to get at the grains, or seed.
Jeff MacDougall said his original seeds were imported from Ukraine, which has an extensive hemp industry, and at about $200 an acre, made for a very expensive crop to sow; he expects costs will drop marginally as more farmers give hemp a try.
Working off-farm as an industrial designer, MacDougall said he was drawn to hemp because it's the strongest plant fibre in existence and it's good for the environment
"One acre of hemp produces four and a half times more high quality pulp that one acre of trees. And it's renewable at a much quicker rate."
Before the crop can be readied for sale, it must be tested by an approved government inspector for THC level... the narcotic which produces a "high"; when missing or present only in minute amounts, THC distinguishes hemp from its kissing cousin, marijuana. Regulations permit the presence of .3 per cent THC.
Kemptville-based agricultural representative Stuart Leyenear said OMAFRA didn't encourage hemp growing in Eastern Ontario this season because there were too many unknowns, not the least
of which was no sure markets for the crop: "There were so many claims made about hemp that I for one thought it was all too good to be true"
Among other drawbacks were the difficulty in acquiring guaranteed seed and the fact the federal government wasn't geared up to issue licenses in good time, Leyenear said, adding that OMAFRA did distribute information on how to apply.
Kuijper, who operates a 230-acre alfalfa, buckwheat and corn farm near Quyon, said county growers are currently gathered in a loose coalition but are thinking of forming a co-operative which they may invite interested Eastern Ontario hemp farmers to join.
She said local growers are planning to man a hemp information booth at the upcoming Shawville Fair which takes place Labour Day weekend.
Once a mainstay Canadian crop, industrial hemp was banned 60 years ago because of its close connection to cannabis or marijuana; would-be producers applying for a hemp license these days must submit to an RCMP or local police check for past drug-related offenses.
Health Canada officials had been stalling on preparing necessary regulations in connection with the legalization of hemp until members of the Senate and Minister Allan Rock started pushing them into getting everything ready for the 1998 growing season.
Kuijper, MacDougall and Leyenear speculated some farmers who considered hemp were either turned off by the complications of getting a license, or ran out of time to complete the paperwork before planting season arrived.
"It was the first time in my life I was ever fingerprinted," Kuijper chuckled. The Dutch immigrant, who said there are some 6,000 acres in hemp in her native country, said no police inquiries are conducted there.
"However, you must prove you have markets before you can grow hemp," she said. "In many ways, there's more state intervention in a person's affairs back in Holland."