It's baaaaack! Industrial hemp, that is, the ancient crop which many conventional farmers love to snicker at has returned to Eastern Ontario.
It's pretty easy to poke fun considering hemp's close association with marijuana. It's actually the same plant minus significant levels of the hallucinogen THC. Under Health Canada regulations, hemp and its parts may not contain more than .3 per cent THC.
Banned in North America in the 1930s, Canada reintroduced controlled production, sale, movement, processing, exporting and importing of certain varieties in 1998.
Re-introduction caused a flurry of interest in growing and selling hemp in this country, but primarily as fibre, OMAFRA expert Gordon Scheifele told information sessions at Douglas and Galetta Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.
The meetings attracted 75 farmers potentially interested in trying out the crop on contract this season for Valley Bio Ltd. which grew and marketed 245 acres of food grade hemp last year.
Scheifele said the market wasn't there 12 years ago. Now hemp is coming back, but almost exclusively on the food oil and meal processing side. Calling hemp "the most incredible plant God created," he insisted hemp's latest comeback in Ontario and across Canada is for real.
"This isn't fly-by-night or boom-or-bust. The market still isn't huge, but hemp is here to stay."
At one time, the expert noted, it was more valuable than gold, providing man with food, clothing, ropes and sails. Today, it can't be grown without a criminal record check and a license from Health Canada.
A separate license must be obtained for each 10-acre plantation, and GPS coordinates must be provided to Health Canada's Office of Controlled Substances. Growers must also arrange for crop tissue sampling and laboratory THC analysis at their expense.
Growing any variety of the plant remains prohibited in the U.S., opening the door to the biggest market for Canadian hemp products.
Scheifele was on hand to back the pitch of young agricultural entrepreneur Reuben Stone who launched Valley Bio to tap into the food grade market.
Stone is trying to sign up Eastern Ontario growers on a contract basis this season to help him cover at least 1,200 acres with Anka variety hemp which will be sold to food processor Manitoba Harvest which bought all of Valley Bio's production last year.
On hand for the meetings, Manitoba Harvest's Tom Greaves described a "big spike" in food grade hemp demand; Greaves made it clear his company will accept any extra Eastern Ontario raw product this year.
While he was thrilled with the turnout, Stone said he's likely to only sign up as hemp producers a small percentage of the farmers who attended.
Big operators geared to corn now receiving $205 a tonne probably won't shift gears to grow a few acres of hemp. While hemp pays $1210 a tonne, much lower yield and much higher expenses bring its net return down to $173 per acre on small fields, compared to $138 for corn on vast acreage. Stone expects any interest to come from smaller niche farmers.
Also part of Eastern Ontario's renewed hemp movement is Marc Bercier of St. Isidore who's been dabbling in the crop for several years and who will do most of the crop drying this year for Valley Bio.