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The highway to hemp

WINNIPEG, Manitoba - A handful of lush, green Manitoba fields are producing crops for a small but thriving business tucked inside a Winnipeg industrial park. It's a lucrative scenario that may provide a glimpse into North Dakota's future.

WINNIPEG, Manitoba - A handful of lush, green Manitoba fields are producing crops for a small but thriving business tucked inside a Winnipeg industrial park. It's a lucrative scenario that may provide a glimpse into North Dakota's future.

The crop is industrial hemp. The Canadian company, Manitoba Harvest/Hemp Food & Oils, was formed in 1998, the year Manitoba started issuing licenses for hemp production.

This month, North Dakota moved one step closer to that milestone, and it is possible that hemp crops will be on the horizon in the spring.

Long battle in N.D.

In July, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson submitted proposed rules for hemp production to North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. Johnson says the rules were carefully researched and took months to put together.

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"We passed the law years ago," Johnson begins, referring to multiple bills approved by past state legislatures and signed by the respective governors legalizing industrial hemp production in North Dakota. The missing ingredient always has been approval by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, which has not recognized the difference between marijuana and industrial hemp.

"We could never get a rule implemented because the (state) attorney general always looked at what we were trying to do and said 'it violates federal law,'" Johnson explains. "After this last session, some of us sat down and did some really extensive brainstorming."

Johnson says Stenehjem was included in that meeting, and the group also heard from pro-hemp organizations in Washington.

"We decided, 'let's just design it so that DEA has to sign off on it,'" Johnson remembers. "We're going to put everything possibly legally into place, so the only part missing is the DEA stamp of approval."

Summer developments

Based on ideas from that meeting, Johnson drew up a proposed set of rules in April, and in compliance with state law, they were published and presented at a public hearing.

Johnson says 30 or 40 people attended the meeting, including several farmers, one person who is interested in processing hemp, and a large group of Canadians currently involved in industrial hemp production north of the border.

"We had a lot of testimony that was provided, and everyone who testified orally testified in favor of the rules," Johnson says, acknowledging that some suggestions were made for clarifying or improving the proposed rules. Written comments also were accepted, and an economic impact study was prepared.

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The proposed rules have been submitted to Stenehjem's office. State guidelines require the attorney general to make a "prompt" decision on the rules' compliance with state and federal laws.

If approved by the attorney general, the rules immediately will be published. If that occurs before the end of the year, the new rules likely would take effect Jan. 1.

Legal responsibilities

"It will then be permissible for North Dakota farmers to apply for permission to grow industrial hemp," Johnson says.

He's optimistic that it will happen and is now in the process of developing the forms farmers will have to fill out in order to comply with the new regulations.

"If somebody wants to grow industrial hemp, they'll have to go through a criminal background check and pay the cost associated with that," Johnson explains. "They'll have to be fingerprinted.

"They will have to give us geopositioning coordinates for the field where they plan to grow it," he says. "They'll have to give us proof that the seed they are planting is, in fact, industrial hemp seed containing less than 0.3 percent THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).

"They will also have to prove that their fields will be available 24/7 for inspection any time we choose," he adds.

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At least two weeks before harvest, growers will have to notify the agriculture department so an inspector can pull samples for analysis. If the crop is found to be out of compliance, the agriculture department will have the authority to destroy it.

State supervision does not end at harvest. Growers will be required to inform the agriculture department about all of their storage and sales plans until the seed is either exported from the United States or processed to the point where the seed no longer is viable.

In turn, the state agriculture department must be able to account for all viable hemp from the time it enters the state as seed, through growing, storage and sales, again, until it becomes nonviable.

DEA's role

Johnson says the detailed state plan is designed to force the DEA to make a decision regarding the legality of hemp. Under the current plan, each state-issued permit will require permission from the DEA. Johnson says the federal agency could respond in one of several different ways.

"They could send a letter to me saying that our (state) process meets their requirements. That would be our preferred way of doing it, but I suspect that they're going to be much more hands on, controlling every single permit."

They also could decide that industrial hemp, when grown under strict guidelines, does not fit the description of a controlled substance, but Johnson says the agency doesn't seem inclined to go that far.

It also is possible that the DEA simply will reject each individual permit submitted for growing hemp, preventing anyone from raising the crop.

Setting precedent

If North Dakota's rules are approved by the state attorney general and indeed take effect after the first of the year, Johnson says he knows of at least one farmer who is willing to plant hemp next spring, even if it means becoming a test case in a lawsuit.

North Dakota is not the only state wrestling with the hemp question this fall.

California's Legislature passed a Hemp Farming Act this year, and, as this article went to press, the bill still was sitting on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk. Earlier this month, the Organic Consumers Association lobbied the governor's office to sign the bill.

Northern success

One of North Dakota's strongest allies in the fight to raise industrial hemp is Manitoba's hemp industry, which faced similar struggles just a decade ago. One of that province's pioneering hemp companies is Manitoba Harvest/Hemp Food & Oils based in Winnipeg.

The company makes food products from hemp seed. The farmers who grow their hemp are paid for the crop they produce, but also earn money from the company's profits as shareholders. Since Manitoba Harvest processes only the hemp seed right now, the remaining plant material is sold to other companies that manufacture various kinds of fiber.

The company opened for business in 1998, and president and co-founder Mike Fata says it sold $50,000 in food and oil products that year. This year, he says that sales figure has swelled to $3 million.

Just like in North Dakota, it took years of struggle before Manitoba growers and processors were able to convince government agencies to allow them produce hemp.

Climate for change

In 1998, Canada's "Control Drug Substances Act" was up for its 20-year renewal, giving lawmakers and businesspeople an opportunity to propose sweeping changes.

There was a great deal of interest in new crops because Manitoba's wheat subsidy program had recently expired. Without that subsidy, Manitoba grain growers couldn't earn as much as farmers in Alberta and Saskatchewan because of much higher shipping costs.

As for hemp, previous discussion had revolved around its use in the fiber industry. But after years of research, University of Manitoba alumnus Martin Moravcik began advocating hemp seed as a healthy, environmentally friendly food product.

A committee of hemp advocates, including Moravcik and Fata, managed to convince Manitoba's agriculture minister to supply $25,000 for test plots. Those test results helped to create new Canadian hemp regulations approved in 1998.

Creating a crop

With the go-ahead to grow hemp, the next challenge for Manitoba Harvest was finding the right crop genetics.

"We brought in the first test seeds from Europe to determine which ones would grow best in Manitoba," Fata explains. "We wanted hemp that was easiest for the farmer to harvest and had the best flavor profile and health benefits."

As a plant species, Fata says industrial hemp is very well suited for Manitoba fields. At 100 to 110 growing days, it matures quickly enough for the northern tier's short season. It also seems to have natural resistance to pests and disease.

"From the 70 or 80 years of research in Europe, they've grown hemp over hemp on the same land for years and years and years, and it hasn't been affected the way a lot of other crops would," Fata says.

Bigger than bugs, disease

While most traditional crops are vulnerable to insect damage, hemp seems impervious because of its sheer size and vigor.

"Insects love hemp, but the hemp grows faster than the insects can affect it," Fata says. "If grasshoppers get into the field when the seedlings are just sprouting, they can do some damage, but as soon as the hemp gets a good start in the spring, it usually outgrows any pest that could get into it."

The same is true for weeds.

"In the spring, hemp gets a real jump on the field. It forms fan leaves that block out the sun so the weeds don't have a chance to grow," Fata says.

Trudging through a 100-acre field of Manitoba Harvest hemp in late August, Fata parts the thick leafy plants, showing how the dark, bare earth below is, indeed, weed-free.

Hemp's natural defenses against pests and disease make it a natural for the organic market, and Fata says it's also an excellent crop for growers making the transition to organic farming. The industry requires three years without the use of chemical pesticides or herbicides before land can be certified organic. Fata says a hemp crop can be grown, chemical-free, for at least two of those years, allowing the farmer to earn good money while cleansing his land.

Drought impact

This year's hemp canopy in Manitoba actually is much shorter than usual because of the summer drought. Fata says, in a typical year, the plants can grow 10 to 12 feet tall, but this year they're averaging 5 or 6 feet.

Still, Fata says the hemp is faring better than many other Manitoba crops.

"Farmers in this area had total failure on a lot of crops, like wheat, soybeans or sunflowers," he says, motioning across the road to a field with flower heads drooping sadly to the ground in the hot sun.

"The hemp is a little more resilient because it has a long taproot, so our farmers are still going to have a crop."

Pulling a plant from the ground, he holds out the root system, which looks more like a sugar beet than a cornstalk.

Harvest adaptations

In Manitoba, the hemp harvest typically starts at the end of September, but Fata says there's an art to knowing when the crop is ready.

"When it gets close to harvest time, hemp farmers are in their fields many times a day," he says.

"They want the plants to dry down naturally, but then it's very important to get into the fields quickly," he adds, noting that, like wheat and rice, hemp seeds are prone to shattering.

Manitoba Harvest farmers cut off the top 2 feet of the plant in their first pass through the field, gathering the seed heads for food production. They're paid for the entire plant, however, so they come back to swath and bale the fiber which is sold, through Manitoba Harvest, to other manufacturing companies.

Hemp's incredibly strong fiber can make harvesting a challenge.

"You have to work the combine a little bit to protect some of the bearings. If the fiber wraps or you're working with an older combine . . . in the first, early years, a few farmers burned down their combines," Fata grimaces.

Manitoba Harvest typically hosts a combine clinic in early August to make sure their growers know how to modify their machines and to update them on contract details and product quality issues.

Grower benefits

This year, Manitoba Harvest has 26 growers raising roughly 6,000 acres of hemp. Their contracts are for one specific seed variety, acquired through a single distributor. Fata says the royalties going back to that breeder help support the genetic line.

Chances are, growers will need less seed in their second year of production.

"The thing with hemp is that it has very strong volunteers, so in your second year, you can seed a little less and still get a full crop," Fata says.

He says it takes about 20 pounds of seed an acre to grow a hemp crop, which in turn, produces about 500 pounds of seed product per acre.

"That's over a four-year period, averaging out the crop failures and bumper crops," he adds.

After the seed is gathered, Fata says farmers will harvest up to 2 tons of fiber per acre.

Drug concerns

Like North Dakota's proposed hemp regulations, Manitoba farmers must have their fields tested regularly for THC levels. Fata says the company's crops have tested so low for so long, Health Canada won't be checking them as often.

Fata also scoffs at the idea that someone could raise several acres of marijuana in the midst of an industrial hemp patch, hiding it from regulatory officials. He says the natural tendency of hemp is to evolve away from high THC levels, and cross-pollination would weaken the TCH content of drug-grade marijuana.

Manitoba's future

Manitoba Harvest's ability to market its products worldwide was jeopardized in 2001, when the DEA issued a ruling banning the sale of hemp products in the United States. A long court battle ensued, but in early 2004, an appeals court permanently blocked the DEA ruling.

Fata says that from 2004 to 2005, sales of Manitoba Harvest's hemp products grew more than 50 percent, and the number of hemp acres grown in Canada increased threefold.

This year, Manitoba Harvest expects to process more than 1.5 million pounds of hemp seed. Its processing plant runs 24 hours a day, five days a week, with 17 full-time employees. Next year, the plan is to move into a new, larger facility.

Meanwhile, Fata says he hopes North Dakota will join them in the hemp market.

"I'm all for the U.S. legalizing hemp," he says. "When you really look at the economics of it, it would open up the marketplace."

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