Is hemp the future of Cowichan agriculture?
Hemp different from smokeable cannabis, both tangled in government regulation difficult for farmers
BY SARAH SIMPSON, CITIZEN JUNE 1, 2012
Ted Smith has long argued that marijuana production should be a legal industry, with cultivation regulated, instead of hindered, by the government.
The Victoria-based president of the International Hempology 101 Society and publisher of Cannabis Digest is one of many, from government officials to noted academics, who believe the time has come for a change in the way society views the plant.
In 2008, B.C. Business magazine placed the province's marijuana industry in second place for its contribution to the B.C. gross domestic product.
Smith says it's time to reformat how cannabis is thought about, believing it could do wonders for the province's economic outlook.
"In this time of fiscal restraint we can no longer afford to waste money on a lost war and a lost battle," Smith said.
And there's no better place to begin the shift than on Vancouver Island, where he thinks the crop would flourish.
"If you think the wine industry has improved our economy with the way it has got this sort of cottage industry, the cannabis community would do a very similar thing," he said. "And we would have a lot of businesses and business opportunities in tourism and other cafés and stuff that would really add a lot of employment and it would be a safer industry to work in as well."
Smith isn't just talking marijuana. He's also talking hemp, marijuana's no-psychoactive relative. But, he said, it's harder to get a licence to grow hemp than it is to get one for medical marijuana.
Licences to cultivate hemp won't be issued unless you have at least 10 acres to cultivate, meaning plenty of environmentally sustainable uses have themselves gone to pot.
"A person with even a couple of acres on their home wouldn't be able to grow a couple of hemp-seed plants in their backyard because the regulations don't allow that."
It's because the government wants to corner the market, he said. Hemp would flourish and bring prosperity to Island growers, if it wasn't so hard to get licensed, Smith noted.
"It doesn't make sense but no one has really challenged that. From my perspective these corporations don't benefit from people being able to look after themselves," he said. "It's all about the money, which is why this plant was made illegal in the first place."
Smith said hemp is being used in many different applications, and could branch out to other areas if only given the chance.
"Farmers for example, if they grew their own seed and pressed out the oil, they could use that in their engines instead of bio-fuel, they could use hemp seed oil and they could provide for all of the electricity and energy needs that they would have," he said. "They could use the leftover mash for protein to feed their animals and feed themselves for that matter, and then they would have the fibre leftover that they could sell at the market as well."
Hemp fibre can be made into products including clothes, insulation and plywood board. People in 100 Mile House are experimenting with hemp-crete right now - hemp-based concrete. There's even an electric car being made in Alberta featuring a hemp-fibre body instead of fiberglass.
Skateboards to bikes, plastics to paint - all sorts of industrial products could also be hemp seed based.
Nanaimo-Cowichan MP Jean Crowder said industrial hemp is "super-regulated" but noted it's not as big an industry as Smith believes. She said Canada has an export market worth roughly $8 million a year.
"It's not big money," she said. "But there's lots and lots of uses for it. It's another agricultural product. I think we should look for ways for supporting it and I think we should make it easier for farmers to grow it."
And in Canada, whatever can be grown, should be, according to Cowichan-based Transglobal Hemp Products Corporation President Brian Johnson.
"We can grow it anywhere in Canada up to the arctic," he said. "Think where the guys that grow marijuana grow it. They grow it on mountain tops, they grow it in valleys."
Johnson said it's neither growing conditions nor regulation that stymies production of industrial hemp on Vancouver Island.
Johnson was part of the group that helped the federal government establish regulations in 1996, prior to hemp cultivation being made legal in 1998.
He said what farmers need are mills. "It's the same idea as if you were a fisherman and you're on the dock with your fish that you caught and there's no (processing facility). "Do your fish rot on the dock or do you stop fishing?"
In the year 2000, Transglobal Hemp Products was working on architectural renderings for a mill in Lake Cowichan near Meade Creek on Youbou Road, in what was to be a 250-acre industrial park.
"We bought into five acres there but it's just got bear prints now. It's years away from having an industrial park there," said Johnson.
When that fell though, Transglobal were in talks with a local farmer to build a mill on an 8.5-acre site but the price of the land got too steep.
Johnson is now looking at building mills on sea containers, "so that we don't have to worry about the price of land and zoning and all the extremely expensive costs of building mills."
The next step may be to make smaller mills, as pilot projects, to see if the industry could thrive. Farmers could move on from there as money and the markets allow.
"This is a labour of love. Everybody else has given up," he said. "We're talking to people offshore in Europe and Asia and Australia and we all want to do the same thing. We're all wanting to get to the point where we have a standardized high-quality reliable series of machinery for (hempbased) pulp, paper, textiles, food, beverage, energy, building materials and cosmetics."
He thinks Vancouver Island could lead the way.
"What really needs to happen is to have more media on this and more people talking about what are the best crops to grow on Vancouver Island. Is it strawberries? Is it poplar? Is it alder? Is it some other plant, or is it hemp? I can guarantee you it is industrial hemp, here and in the whole world."
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