Pubdate: Tue, 10 Mar 2009
Source: Community Press, The (CN ON)
Copyright: 2009 Osprey Media
Author: John Campbell


Stirling - Stonehedge Bio-Resources Inc. is looking for farmers to 
grow industrial hemp that can be turned into insulation, biomasonry 
concrete and fuel pellets. It's also in the market for a site to 
build a 60,000-square-foot manufacturing plant somewhere along the 
Highway 401 corridor between Belleville and Port Hope that will 
employ more than two dozen people.

"The total project is probably going to be in excess of $15 
(million), maybe close to $20 million," John Baker, president of 
Stonehedge, said in an interview. More than half of that will spent 
on specialized equipment developed in Europe where industrial hemp is 
used extensively in a variety of products, including auto parts.

The decortication factory will be the first of its kind in North America.

The Stirling-area company has "commitments" of capital from investors 
in the United Kingdom and the United States who need "a supply chain 
. to grow their business," - mainly hempcrete, Baker said. They're 
"ready to develop the U.S. market."

Other potential investors have expressed an interest in purchasing 
equity in Stonehedge as well and Baker has approached the provincial 
and federal governments for financing in the form of loans.

However, even though "there are all kinds of government programs for 
the green sustainable economy," the funding is "hard to access," 
Baker says. "It's a slow ... frustrating process.

"It's like the programs were designed to fund the multinationals, not 
really startups (or) small companies," he said. "The mechanism is 
constipated ... We just have to be patient."

Baker said he hopes to have all the financing he needs to launch the 
venture in place by May 1.

In the meantime, Baker will be reaching out to farmers in Hastings 
and Northumberland counties to sign contracts to grow hemp.

Stonehedge has scheduled two information sessions next week - March 
16 at the Centreton Community Hall in Northumberland County and March 
17 at the Ivanhoe Community Hall in Hastings County. Both meetings 
begin at 1:30 p.m.

Baker has already held focus groups with a number of farmers to find 
out what they would need in order to add hemp to their regular crop 
rotation of corn, soybean and wheat.

"I believe it will be one of the most profitable crops they can grow, 
if not this year, within a couple of years," he said. "It will be 
much more stable in pricing than the volatility they see with other 
cash crops ... It will be a very stable long-term type of venture."

Hemp is attractive in other ways. It's an "extremely deeply rooted 
crop (that) leaves the soil in beautiful shape," Baker said, and its 
input costs are lower as it doesn't require pesticides or herbicides, 
"but you do need to feed it fertilizers."

Roy Taylor, a cash crop and beef farmer from Roseneath, attended 
Baker's presentation at the Quinte Farm and Trade Show in Trenton 
last month and was one of about two dozen who expressed an interest 
in learning more about growing hemp. Prices for cash crops have been 
good but "are a little bit lower right now," he said, so adding hemp 
to the mix could be "another egg in the basket."

He said he would like to try growing "a little bit" this year to 
determine its potential.

Baker plans to sign only single year contracts at the outset, in 
order to find out what works and what needs tweaking. After that it 
will be three-to five-year contracts. His preference is for 50 acres 
at minimum but it might take "a whole lot of people growing 25."

The planting should be done in mid-April.

Harvesting the hemp, which can grow to a height of 15 feet in 100 
days, will require the services of a custom operator because special 
equipment is needed to cut it. The grower will be responsible for 
raking, baling and storing the straw until it goes for processing.

Growers will need to be licensed which will involve having a police 
check done to ensure they haven't a criminal record, Baker says. The 
sites are registered with Health Canada.

The manufacturing plant will process hemp straw into three components 
that Baker believes "there is a strong market for right across North 
America." About half of the material would be used to make hempcrete, 
one-quarter would go into producing insulation, "and a fairly 
significant portion" would be converted into energy pellets. "There's 
virtually no waste," Baker said.

The plant will be able to process straw from up to 20,000 acres a 
year but production will ramp up slowly. Baker is looking to plant 
5,000 acres this year, more than 10,000 acres the following year and 
in excess of 15,000 by year three.

Although hemp resembles marijuana, it has little THC, the chemical 
that gives marijuana its hallucinogenic properties. Hemp straw is 
"regarded as the strongest natural fibre in the world" and the woody 
core material is used to make hempcrete, a lightweight alternative to 
concrete that is "totally fire retardant," and resistant to moulds and pests.

Baker, a plant scientist and researcher, "stumbled across the fact 
that there was remnant historical cannibis biodiversity in this area" 
about 10 years ago. The British navy had introduced hemp to Canada to 
create an alternative source to its traditional supplier, Russia, in 
order to continue manufacturing rope and sailcloth.

"It was a military crop," Baker says, introduced to this country when 
relations with the United States deteriorated to the point that it 
led to the War of 1812.

Baker began "bioprospecting" and discovered that seeds originally 
from Russia had "learned how to adapt and survive here in isolated 
pockets." He collected and preserved more than 25 different lines of 
biodiversity and then began planting research plots to determine if 
the plant had any agricultural value. He cross-bred Upper Canada hemp 
with the best grown in Europe and was able to achieve "tremendous 
improvements (in) yield, adaptability, seed size, a whole series of 
traits," Baker said.

He's registered one of the varieties he developed and has another 
four "in the pipeline," each of them with characteristics suited for 
a particular application.

He told those who attended his farm show presentation that the 
"unique germ plasma" he's developed will give hemp growers in Canada 
"a distinct advantage worldwide."
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart