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Hemp research coming north

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You can make rope with it, not to mention clothing, plastics, vegetable oil, and other numerous products—and it could become the next cash crop for the north.

Gord Scheifele, northern research co-ordinator for the University of Guelph, has been doing hemp research for agricultural purposes for the last several years.

“We hope to have 100 acres in the north,” he said, noting about 30 farmers from Rainy River, Dryden, Kenora and Thunder Bay have agreed to grow about five acres of hemp each.

The test plots are to see how well the hemp can grow and survive in the north. And once the hardiness of the plant has been determined, the next step is to pick what its end product may be.

“Are we going to grow it to make paper with, particle board, vegetable oil?” Scheifele mused.

“My expectation is we won’t got the highest value-added product right now,” he admitted, noting an infrastructure base would have to be set up first.

But once the infrastructure for growing and processing hemp is in place, Scheifele said the possibilities for expansion are enormous. Perhaps the greatest area is in the line of plastics.

Hemp’s cellulose core can produce a high-quality plastic without using petroleum products, making it much more environmentally friendly.

“The automotive industry is interested at looking at the crop," Scheifele said. "The entire auto body parts of a car can be made from hemp.”

The carpet industry also is looking at using hemp to provide non-toxic fibers for rugs, he noted, and use of its bark as animal bedding proves to be three to four times more absorbent than straw.

So far, the only barrier to growing hemp has been a legal one. Since hemp is the same species as marijuana, it has been labelled as a controlled substance, something Scheifele called a gross injustice.

“They’re the same species but different varieties,” he argued, noting less than 0.3 percent of hemp leaves are made up of mind altering chemicals, compared to the 20-30 percent that exists in marijuana leaves.

“You’d have to smoke tons [for any effect]," he added. "And you’d be sick from the tar.”

Growing methods for hemp and marijuana also differ, Scheifele said—marijuana is spaced two to three feet apart to allow for broad leaves while hemp is seeded at about 200-300 plants per square metre since the stems are the most important part of production.

The growth of hemp is still heavily regulated by Health and Welfare Canada as a controlled substance. But Scheifele said the red tape has been reduced greatly, especially compared to the United States where hemp production is still outlawed.

“We’ve made tremendous progress," he said. "The leaves will always be a controlled substance [but] we got them to the point where we got to grow stems.”

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