CHESTERVILLE ó When driving down County Road 9 just north of Chesterville, you might do a double take when looking out over the fields. Local farmer Dave Chambers is trying something new this year ó hemp.
Chambers was looking for a new crop to plant and decided to try this legal but highly regulated member of the Cannabis family.
Why hemp? "For me itís just an alternative crop," said Chambers, "Itís something new, and we thought this would be a good fit."
According to Marc Bercier, of Bercier Seeds who sold Chambers the seed, hemp has only been legal to plant in Canada for about 12 years. Bercier has been in the hemp business for seven of those 12 years.
"We were looking for a niche market that would not put us in competition with the United States," said Bercier, adding that it is still illegal to grow hemp in the US.
Although itís legal in Canada, it isnít without regulations. Chambers and his family had to go through a police criminal background check and then had to apply to Health Canada for a permit. The permit was issued after Chambers provided a copy of the contract with ValleyBio, the company that will use the harvested hemp grain ó though not considered a grain ó in various products. GPS coordinates for his field were also registered with the Ontario Provincial Police.
Bercier said there are a number of reasons why hemp is a good crop to invest in.
"The first reason we grow hemp is because itís a healthy food," said Bercier, "Itís very high in omega three, six and nine. Itís also a gluten-free crop."
Bercier said that studies are showing that every 10 years, the populationís intolerance to gluten rises by 15 per cent and 20 per cent more people develop celiac disease, a condition where the small intestine is damaged by gluten. In addition to being gluten free, hemp is also hypo-allergenic.
"If you have young children, the lunch box is getting complicated because of allergies," said Bercier, and hemp can solve some of those issues.
Hemp also does not require herbicides.
"Sooner or later, we need to give our land a break from herbicides," said Chambers. With a good crop rotation, growing hemp can provide that break. Bercier said that hemp has a tendency to choke out other plants like ragweed. The roots of the hemp plant take over the roots of the other plants, in essence weeding itís own field.
Another reason for growing hemp is the convenient harvest time. Seeds are planted later than soybeans, and the hemp harvest occurs at a time falling between cereal crop and soybean harvests.
Still, itís a slow process as the harvesting of hemp is a relatively new venture.
"We have been doing this for 7 or 8 years, and people ask what is going on with our project," said Bercier, "We only have one crop per year and we have to learn. We have modified the crop to adapt to our conditions and then the next big step is the new combine." Bercier said that while they know how to harvest the crop, they still need to develop a combine to do it.
"We have many questions and we are working now to get the answers," said Bercier, adding that there was still a lot of potential for hemp growers.
"The market is there, we have a chocolate bar to put on the market, but before we invest in a whole processing plant, we need to secure production," said Bercier. "If the farmer is not able to have success and make money, there is no way to develop that market." Bercier said they had developed a bar made from hemp that was comparable to any granola bar on the market.
Another advantage of hemp is that every part of the plant can be used. The skin on the stalks is turned into fiber, and the heart of the stalk makes a great bedding material as it can absorb 12 times itís weight. It also takes less hemp to make paper than it does wood.
Hemp also does not require a lot of water like most other crops. Bercier said hemp only needs about an inch of rain to thrive.
"If you check the consumption of water compared to the biomasses, hemp is the best crop," he said.
Chambers has planted 40 acres which should be ready to harvest in early September. He is expecting a yield of between 1,400 and 1,500 pounds per acre and should see a revenue from that of 75 cents per pound.
Bercier said that this new crop still has a way to go.
"The grain commission doesnít want to consider this a grain crop," said Bercier, adding, "Itís considered a nut crop," which, as he pointed out, was not necessarily a bad thing as the cost of nuts is about three times that of grains.
Bercier said they need to get a grading system in place as well, and of course, there still is the issue of harvesting. But Bercier said it will all come about in time.
"Did we have good combines to harvest? No, thatís why we are patient. It takes time. If we hurry, and donít have enough data, we wonít have the grower, we wonít have the supply," he said.
With itís close resemblance to itís more potent cousin, marijuana, Chambers was asked if he was concerned about potential problems with the crop.
"Not really. I was at the beginning, but not anymore," he said, "Weíve had people stop and look at it, and people want to know about it. But they are interested in the nut, mostly for cooking. I havenít met anybody that wanted to do anything else with it. Theyíre just going to show up by themselves, not likely to knock on my door." In addition, police have been notified of where the hemp fields are.
If anyone tried to sneak in a few marijuana plants, they would end up being quite disappointed. The hemp would cross pollinate with the plants thus lowering THC levels. With cloning, an average marijuana plant produces about 40 per cent THC while hemp only produces .03 per cent. Bercier said that you could not grow good marijuana for about a five mile radius from a hemp field.