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“Przekrój” Magazine brings to the English reader some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in such fields as culture, society, ecology and literature. Stand aside from the haste and fierceness of everyday news and join us now!

Przekrój
Commercial hemp production is on the rise in Poland. We found out just how difficult it is to grow hemp, ...
2018-04-20 09:00:00

A Plant With Too Many Uses
The Joys of Growing Hemp

Photo by Aleksander Borawski
A Plant With Too Many Uses
A Plant With Too Many Uses

My friends and I were told that hemp plants are returning to Poland’s soil. Naturally, we too wanted to grow them. We had no idea how many problems they would bring us, but also how much joy.

The three of us set up a limited company – me, my husband Aleksander, and our friend Przemek. We were like the three friends from Reymont’s The Promised Land, only we didn’t build a factory, but a hemp plantation. We got our seeds from the Poznań Institute of Natural Fibres and Medicinal Plants. We would provide them with new seeds for re-cultivation and, in return, the rest of our crop – flower heads (or inflorescences) and hemp straw – would be ours to do with as we wished. Straight away we decided that we’d produce oils and Hempcrete. We were energized and optimistic.

In early spring, Przemek (who is a farmer) prepared the soil. He ploughed it and added fertilizer. We planted our seeds in May, thinking that the process would involve going out to the field, reaching into little sacks hanging from our belts, and then tossing the seeds around in the late-spring sunshine, wiping the sweat from our brow after an honest day’s work. Meanwhile, Przemek got in his tractor, hooked a seeding trailer to it, and in half an hour the job was done. We only had two hectares to cover.

By the second half of July, the hemp plants had reached over two metres in height. We ran around those two hectares like kids. It was green, it smelled good; the sun moved life all around us, birds and insects were buzzing like crazy. After jogging around our promised land for an hour or so (and brushing past surprisingly sharp hemp leaves) our shins and ankles tingled with nettle-like stings. I kept scratching for another two weeks, but the first impression was like nothing else I’d ever experienced. Such a small scrap of land had flowered so quickly, so spectacularly, without additional fertilizer or pesticides.

By the time we came to harvest, things were no longer so sunny and rosy. Aleksander and Przemek, with the help of hemp growing expert Daniel Bajas (@WloknisciPL), struggled with the four-metre tall stems using harvesting machines, which (not being suited to these sorts of plants) jammed constantly. We managed to collect a fair load, but had to rake it all out by hand, so that the plants could dry properly. Many seeds rotted during the drying process, just like the straw that rots in fields if left unchecked.

On the slopes of Tian Shan

Hemp should be planted in late spring, depending on the weather. You can start sowing as early as April, and even up until the first day of June. The plants need little attention. They grow at an impressive rate – up to 30 centimetres per week – and can reach up to four metres in height.

Choosing the time to harvest also depends on the weather, but it’s best to do so in September. After collecting the flower-packed inflorescences, the straw can be cut into smaller pieces and left in the field for up to a month, in order for dew to soften it. To save them from the risk of rot, the seeds should be dried in a professional dryer.

The cannabis sativa species is closely related to the hop plant. It first appeared on the slopes of the Tian Shan mountain range that stretches from China to Pakistan, taking in all of Kazakhstan along the way. The place it chose for its professional debut was ideal – it grew along an important trade route, on wide grazing lands. It spread instantly, initially across India and China, before making its way to Europe.

It’s one of the first plants that human beings cultivated. Along with flax, hemp was the main fibre used to produce fabrics, especially for technical purposes such as sails and rope. Hemp has kept people company since the days of antiquity. According to William Stanwix and Alex Sparrow – co-authors of The Hempcrete Book – its importance can be observed in language (such as the English word ‘canvas’, which is derived from ‘cannabis’ and means ‘made of hemp’) and on maps (such as Hemp Street in Belfast, or Cwm Cywarch in Snowdonia, which translates as ‘the valley of the steep mountain where hemp was grown’).

Farmers like it for its weed-killing and soil-conditioning properties. Thanks to a well-developed network of roots, hemp has a beneficial effect on the earth. And there’s life after death: when cut down and ploughed into the ground before winter, it rejuvenates fallow earth.

Paper can also be made from hemp. In fact, hemp paper sheets were used to record the first ever edition of the United States Constitution. Yet it was the US that, 150 years later, moved away from hemp production. Growing, selling and possessing the plant became illegal with the FBI-initiated 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. Two years earlier, engineers from the DuPont company discovered nylon, a fabric made from crude oil looking to supplant its natural competitor. Some think that hemp was outlawed for economic reasons. The president of DuPont is said to have paid Harry J. Anslinger (the then head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics) to give the plant a bad name. Media support and public opinion was taken care of by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. He used the pages of his tabloid newspapers to organize a campaign against marijuana, blaming it for the increasing crime rate across America at the time. Hearst too had a stake in it – he drew profit from paper made of cellulose wood fibres. The Marijuana Tax Act was also beneficial for producers of alcohol who, following years of prohibition, were keen to expand their sales.

Returning from the wilderness

In Poland, the tradition of planting hemp goes back as far as the history of the country itself. In the 1950s and 1960s, hemp covered 30,000 hectares of Polish land, but that number soon decreased. The complete disappearance of hemp from Poland took place in the 1980s, as a consequence of laws designed to root out drug misuse. In practice, only the Poznań Institute of Natural Fibres and Medicinal Plants kept up hemp cultivation.

Today, hemp growing is allowed on the condition that the psychoactive THC content is not above 0.2%. Varieties such as finola or białobrzeska are completely legal, although in order to grow them, you need to first secure the right documentation.

“When we began planting hemp in 2012, the level of ignorance was both funny and frightening,” says Włókniści.pl’s Daniel Bajas. “In only a few decades, we managed to forget what hemp is and have associated the plant solely with the drug, even where it was widely cultivated in the past. We had to explain to officials about laws that govern commercial production, but we still had problems with the local people and police.”

My husband found a few flaws in the legislation relating to the possession of extracts from dried hemp. When subjected to the process of extraction (essential for separating certain substances to be used, for example, in cosmetics), legally grown plants can contain an excessive amount of THC. The intensity is still so small that it’s impossible to use such substances as a mind-altering drug. But it’s still illegal to then sell them on the open market.

“Let’s be clear about this – THC is also present in regular foodstuffs,” states Bajas. “Completely eliminating it is, under the current circumstances, both impossible and unnecessary.”

Tea and concrete

While the seeds and straw were drying, we researched what we could do with our harvest. The seeds are used in food production, as they provide a source of easily assimilable protein. This makes them a great substitute for meat or artificially-produced protein supplements.

Dr Przemysław Baraniecki from the Poznań Institute of Natural Fibres and Medicinal Plants revealed to me that making hemp protein more widely available is a big dream for many of his colleagues. It’s a form of protein that is a lot more nutritious and easily absorbed than soya. Plus, the harvesting of hemp is much less environmentally damaging than large-scale soya production. Unfortunately for our trio, the production of food was out of the question. Like any hemp producer, we would have had to secured lots of permissions, something that at the test stage was simply not feasible.

But hemp isn’t just good for food. The so-called ‘dried hemp’ produced from inflorescences is the main source of the cannabinoid CBD, a substance with medical properties. It can be served as herbal tea that – and I recommend this from personal experience – reduces the effects of migraines and helps with sleep. Dried hemp can also be used to produce a condensed extract from the plant. It not only contains the precious CBD, but other cannabinoids, along with wax and turpentine. Each of these constituents can be separated from the extract and used once purified, although mainly in the lab. Extraction in Poland is child’s play, costing around 10,000zł (£2000) for a tonne of raw material. The product can be sold at substantial profit, or else further modified.

“Terpenoids, an ingredient found in essential hemp oils, are valuable because they have wonderful fungicidal properties, and so they work very well in anti-dandruff shampoos and other cosmetics aimed at people with skin problems,” says Aleksander Wawrzyniak.

The straw itself can also be used. It’s easy to burn and dispose of, but it’s also a very valuable material. In order to make full use of hemp straw, you need a tool called a decorticator, which is used to separate the outer bast fibres from the inner woody core (the hemp hurd). The fibres can be used in car interiors instead of plastics – they are light, flexible and long-lasting – or, as in the past, they can be used to produce fabrics for clothing.

The hurd is used in the building industry, for example, in the production of ecological hemp concrete (Hempcrete). In The Hempcrete Book, William Stanwix and Alex Sparrow explain how this building material has great isolating properties and also ‘breathes’ very well. Homes made of Hempcrete keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They allow builders to use less artificial, highly-processed materials, which have a damaging impact on the environment.

No drying

The final balance of our plantation was as follows: from less than two hectares, we ended up with a tonne of seeds, some 850 kilograms of dried hemp, and 10 tonnes of straw. Unfortunately, most of the straw rotted away and the seeds were wrecked by mould. We lacked experience, but also the necessary infrastructure (professional drying facilities, machines that would speed up the harvesting, storage space, etc.), as well as time and workforce.

After the initial fascination wore off, the time came for sobering thoughts. The first was related to us being city folk. Farming is not an easy way to make a living, even if we’re dealing with ‘weeds’.

But later on, I realized that a lot of myths have grown up around hemp, for a range of reasons. Its multitude of uses also produces fears. A plant that is so flexible and grows so rapidly seems like a great substitute for other crops. With the rate of current technological progress, we’ll soon be able to extract other substances from it. Won’t this lead to the replacement of some monocultures with another: hemp? Is its production, at present so environmentally-friendly, not likely to need intensive fertilizing in the future?

In spite of these reservations, I remain an enthusiastic fan of hemp. This year, we’re extending our hemp patch to six hectares.

 

Technical consultation provided by Dr Przemysław Baraniecki (IWNiRZ). Special thanks to Daniel Bajas, Aleksander Borawski, Natacha Leban, Rafał Modliński and Aleksander Wawrzyniak. 

 

Translated from the Polish by Marek Kazmierski

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