Hemp: an alternative source of fibre for Nova Scotia

Sara K. Francis

Canadian Industrial Hemp Council (CIHC), 2381 Hunter St., Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3K 4V7
tel.: 902/423-1661, fax: 902/494-3728, e-mail: skfranci@is2.dal.ca

        The undertaking of this thesis research was inspired by a desire to investigate the environmental claims made about the potential for industrial hemp to ameliorate and even cure environmental problems.  My interest was piqued after I began my research on industrial hemp and discovered that Nova Scotia is believed to be the first place in North America where hemp was introduced, and furthermore, research had been conducted at several research stations in the province during the 1920s.  Thus, I decided to undertake the challenge of investigating the suitability and sustainability of industrial hemp as a new commercial fibre crop for Nova Scotia.
        I found that the increased attention industrial hemp receives from the environmental sector can be attributed to several factors, among which are environmental quality concerns within the forestry and agricultural sectors.   The forestry issue centers around an enhanced awareness of the environmental impacts associated with the cultivation and harvesting of trees for pulp production.   These impacts can be attributed to the use of chemical herbicides and insecticides, the loss of wildlife habitat, and the potential for erosion on clear-cut sites.  The use of herbicides in Nova Scotia is more intense than in any other region of Canada, and the increased rate of herbicide usage in the Atlantic region is believed to be a direct result of tree plantations.
        In the agricultural sector, the development of intensive commercial practices has also had an effect on the environment.  This form of agriculture has a great dependence on the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in order to obtain high yields.  The use of improper agricultural practices can also lead to increased soil erosion and the subsequent sedimentation of lakes and rivers.
        The use of non-wood materials as a source of fibre is receiving increased attention, mainly in order to alleviate some of the pressures associated with forestry, and to make agriculture more sustainable.  Some of the non-woods that are receiving attention in Canada include: hemp, switchgrass (a perennial crop), and straw (agricultural residue from grain and cereal production).  The main purpose of my thesis research was to evaluate hemp as an alternative fibre source that could reduce the impact of forestry and agriculture on the environment, while meeting the needs of Nova Scotia’s pulp and paper industry.
        Three goals were established for this thesis research.  The first was to investigate the characteristics of hemp as an industrial crop.  This was necessary, as the amount of current information on industrial hemp cultivation is quite limited and was achieved, in part, by sending out surveys to many hemp farmers around the world.  Approximately 50 of these very comprehensive surveys were sent out, and in the end, 14 surveys were returned.  When the results were compiled they confirmed much of the claims made in the hemp literature from the turn of the century.  Thus, I was able to conclude that:

  1. Hemp is extremely disease and pest resistant. There were minimal reports of using chemical compounds to control diseases and pests. In most cases, the financial costs of using such compounds exceeded the da-mage caused by the pests or diseases.
  2. Hemp is effective as a natural herbicide. It was reportedly used to clear weeds from fields the year before planting other crops. This factor was extremely attractive to organic farmer respondents.
  3. Hemp did require the use of fertilizers but these were not required to be synthetic, although there were only two reports of using animal manure.
  4. The average total dry matter yield of hemp was 9 tons/ha.

        Information from these surveys allowed evaluation of the agronomic requirements of hemp.  The second goal could then be addressed, which was to determine the suitability of Nova Scotia for growing industrial hemp.  Using a Geographic Information System (GIS), the suitability of Nova Scotia’s soils for industrial hemp was evaluated.  Factors such as drainage, slope, rockiness, and soil type were assigned a rating of good, fair, poor, or unsuitable for commercial industrial hemp production (see Fig. 1).  Maps were then produced at two levels, based on the suitability information.  Initially, a generalized map of the province was produced to show specific areas where hemp may be grown (MAP 4-A).   Following this, one of the suitable areas was selected to show in more detail where hemp could be grown incorporating present land use (MAP 4-F).  Limitations were also outlined so that potential hemp farmers could examine a region and visually determine the greatest limitation to hemp farming in a particular area (e.g., drainage, rockiness, slope...)

Figure 1.   Suitability of soiltypes for hemp cultivation.

        The third goal was to evaluate several sources of fibre and their relative potential to contribute to a sustainable agricultural system.  Based on “sustainable agriculture” literature, nine criteria were developed.  The results of this evaluation allowed the following conclusions:

  1. Hemp had the highest potential to contribute to a sustainable agricul-tural system, mainly due to the fact that it grows best under rotation and has low chemical input requirements.
  2. Switchgrass also had a high po-tential, but its chemical requirements were slightly higher than that of hemp.
  3. Trees as a source of fibre had a low potential to contribute to sustainable agriculture. When trees are maxi-mized for pulpwood production, the temporal and spatial diversity is low and there is a high dependence on chemicals.
  4. Straw is often cited as a sustainable source of fibre. However, if the grain production is highly dependent on chemicals, then the potential for its debris to contribute to sustainable agriculture is low. Straw also contributes to the quality of the soil when it is left on the ground.

        In the end, it was concluded that hemp has a high potential to contribute to a sustainable agricultural system and could provide several benefits to agricultural systems in general.  Interest has now developed surrounding the use of industrial hemp to lengthen crop rotations, especially for potato production.
        Though hemp will not likely replace all the tree based pulp produced in the province, there is sufficient land in Nova Scotia for some degree of hemp production as a fibre source.  It is believed that one of the most beneficial sectors for industrial hemp in this province would be within the recycled paper industry, where hemp could add strength to recycled paper pulp.
        Through this thesis research, many of the environmental claims made about hemp were found to be based in fact, though sometimes exaggerated in the popular literature.  Industrial hemp was also found to have a high potential as an additional, alternative source of fibre for a variety of products that could be produced in Nova Scotia.