There are a few people in this province getting a little high on hemp these days. But it’s for all the right reasons.

After a somewhat shaky start, there is an industry growing around this not-worth-smoking cousin to the marijuana plant. Some are even comparing it to where canola was in its development 50 years ago: infancy, with poorly understood agronomy, underdeveloped markets and few varieties.

Of course, there are some differences. Producers must have a licence from Health Canada to grow hemp and that requires undergoing a police check. They must provide global positioning system co-ordinates of their field, which makes it relatively simple for the RCMP to determine the difference between a hemp field and a grow op. And just for good measure, they can’t grow it near schools or other places where young people hang out.

Secondly, hemp has an advantage over canola in that the plant’s fibre has commercial applications as well as its seed. Hemp was once grown here for use in rope and other fibre-based products. But it was banned in 1938 because it was too hard to tell apart from the more potent stuff.

“Industrial hemp is different in that it has the opportunity to develop an industry based on total plant utilization,” Keith Watson, a diversification specialist with Manitoba Agriculture Food and Rural Initiatives recently told an agronomists’ meeting.

Health Canada began allowing the production of hemp that contains low levels (less than 0.3 per cent) of delta-9 THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) in 1998. Initially there was a lot of hype around the crop, just like there once was around ostriches and emus and echineacea — diversification ventures that have since gone the way of the Dodo bird.

And for a while, it looked as though hemp was headed down the same path to obscurity. Farmers who initially attempted growing the early varieties wound up with dense fields of plants pushing 10 feet or more. Harvesting the coarse fibrous stocks even sent a few combines up in smoke.

Then Consolidated Growers and Processors Ltd., one of the first processors to attempt establishing a plant in the province, fizzled out before construction began. The California company entered the Manitoba scene with big plans to build a processing plant. It contracted 20,000 acres with growers in the Dauphin area in 1999, boasting it would be buying 70,000 acres the following year. But it ran into a few problems with the Manitoba Securities Commission and then went bankrupt in early 2000, leaving growers with a mountain of seed and no market.

Rather than chalk it up to another bitter farming experience, these growers rose to the challenge. They formed the Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers new generation co-operative and started pursuing marketing and processing opportunities for a crop they believed has a future here. The result is a company called Parkland Bio Fibre Ltd., which is working towards construction of a plant to process hemp plants into insulation products used in place of pink fiberglass.

The seed will be marketed through other processors that have set up in the province. Hemp Oil Canada Inc. (HOCI) and Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods and Oils prevent market-crippling over supplies through contracts with producers. That said, they’re experiencing rapid growth in demand for their range of food and skin care products as healthy, natural alternatives. Hemp seed oil doesn’t have a long shelf life but it is high in polyunsaturated fats and essential fatty acids.

The Ste. Agathe-based HOCI moved from processing 800,000 pounds of hemp seed in 2004 to 2.5 million pounds in 2005. Growers’ acres have risen from 1,200 acres in 2004 to nearly 10,000 acres expected for 2006. With production averaging around 700 pounds per acre for seed, the crop provides growers with a relatively good return compared to other crops they can grow — even more if they grow it organically. And those returns will get even better if the fibre processing venture gets off the ground. There’s even some work taking place in other parts of the world on using hemp oil for biodiesel production.

Agronomic questions are being resolved too, mainly through on-farm trial and error. There are few herbicide products registered for application on hemp, which may complicate weed control but keeps input costs relatively low. What’s nice about these three processing companies is they are Manitoba-grown. In some cases, their investors are the same farmers who grow the crop. And they are diversifying their market through the development of different products from the seed, oil and fibre.

None of this is happening as fast as farmers had hoped. But these early setbacks — which forced growers to become leaders in the industry’s evolution — may actually contribute to the industry’s long-term stability. It’s a bit ironic. Many of the much-touted benefits of exotic crops or livestock and value-added processing have turned out to be little more than hallucinations for farmers. Hemp, it appears, may not.