Hemp growers gambling on rebirth of an industry
Fibres are used to make rope, cloth and mats
By Mark Bellis
Special to The Star
PAIN COURT JeanMarie Laprise stands in front of a large tract of 2.5metre tall cannabis plants he wants to turn into the rebirth of an industry.
``I'm convinced we can grow hemp and make a profit at it,'' says Laprise.
He's in the process of harvesting 40 hectares of hemp he planted this year in Pain Court, a small francophone community northwest of Chatham.
Laprise, 43, has been growing hemp for two years with permission from Health Canada, which allows experimental growing of the crop.
Health Canada says 107 hectares of hemp are currently under cultivation in Canada, 90 of them in Ontario. Laprise said he has the single largest operation in Canada.
And the growers are hoping that the government changes the regulations under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to allow for the development of a hemp industry.
The fibres from the hemp plant can be used to make rope, cloth, mats, and could even be made into a sort of fibreglasslike plastic. Seeds from the plant can be eaten by animals and people, and oil can be extracted for cooking, medicine or food.
Laprise, who farms 600 hectares of vegetables and soybeans, said a neighbor suggested he start growing hemp experimentally because it provided a substitute for less renewable resources like trees, and improved soil quality.
Also, unlike cotton, which is the main source for fibre in North America, it can be grown without pesticides.
Laprise is currently building a processing facility to separate the fibres from the hemp stems.
Laprise, whose family has been farming in Ontario since the first French colonists arrived, said hemp cultivation was widespread in Ontario before 1938, when it was made illegal along with marijuana.
Both hemp and marijuana are varieties of the cannabis sativa plant, but hemp has a THC ( tetrahydrocannabinol ) the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana content hundreds of times lower than that of marijuana.
Health Canada requires that the hemp seeds be heat sterilized so they cannot grow before they are sold, something which Laprise claims reduces the quality of the oil.
Laprise and researcher Peter Dragla of Ridgetown College near Chatham, part of the University of Guelph, said hemp also appears to reduce the number of nematodes in the soil. Nematodes are small worms that attack soybean plants.
Laprise said nematode infestation is so bad in the region that ``lots of fields around here can't grow soybeans any more.''
Laprise has provided the coordinates of his fields with police, who regularly search for marijuana growth from the air.
But Laprise said no one would want to try growing marijuana next to his hemp to disguise it from police, because he grows male plants that produce lots of pollen.
Marijuana growers pull the male plants out to stop the female flowers from being fertilized, which maximizes the THC content.
``No one would even want to grow marijuana near here,'' Laprise said, since the pollen carries a great distance.
Dragla, who said his Romanian grandparents always wore clothing made from the hemp they grew, obtained the seeds used in the experiments from eastern Europe and France, where, he said, hemp grows extensively.
Dragla said he wants to develop strains from the European plants that would grow well in Ontario's climate.
He left last week for a 10day visit to Europe to observe hemp production there.