Highlights from the Kentucky Hemp Conference

Craig Crawford, EcoDesign Group

    The re-introduction of a fibre hemp industry in North America took another step closer to reality, judging from the very successful hemp conference held in Lexington Kentucky May 31, 1996.  The key theme running throughout the conference — at least from a Canadian perspective — was the emergence of new technologies that promise to reduce the cost of cultivating and manufacturing fibre hemp.
    For about 50 years, hemp technologies were frozen in time as one country after another placed legal restrictions on its commercial cultivation.  Much of the farm equipment and manufacturing capacity dates back to the 1940s and 50s and is extremely inefficient compared to today’s modern technologies.  Market prices for fibre hemp, as a result, are high and therefore restrict market penetration to niche areas.  Over the long run, a domestic hemp industry is not sustainable in North America without the introduction of new and more efficient equipment.
    The Kentucky conference gave a tantalizing peak at the first wave of new technology about to hit the international market.
    Sergei Vorontsov, from the Ukraine, treated the audience to a video that described a new Russian prototype for seed harvesting.  The machine combines into one operation both seed collection and the cutting and bundling of the fiber stalk.   The result is a dramatic reduction in the need for manual labour in the field.   Sergei is looking for Western partners to help finance commercial production of the machine.
    Flores de Vries, from Hempflax in the Netherlands, announced the formation of a new company called Hempflax Akkerbouw vof (HFA).  After reviewing more than fifty conventional agricultural machines, as well as modern hemp equipment from France, the company concluded that new technologies and methods of cultivation are necessary for large scale cultivation.  HFA has now developed a sowing machine that can seed 30 acres per hour.  A prototype cutting and mowing machine was also developed that cuts 3-4 metre long stems into pieces 60 centimetres long at a capacity of 7.5 acres per hour.  The mower avoids problems associated with long fibres from the hemp plant wrapping around moving parts.  Three turning machines were built that do not damage the fibre and leave most of the woody core in the crop.  Square bale presses manufactured by Deutz-Fahr were also improved and can bale up to 20 tons per hour in 300 kg. bales.  These advances in technology allow 150 acres of hemp to be baled and transported each day.  Hempflax B.V. is growing 1,000 ha. of hemp in the Netherlands and 500 ha. in Germany in 1996.
    Adrian Clarke, from the Australian Hemp Company, announced his firm has patented a new machine that allows the farmer to harvest and decorticate hemp in the field.  The prototype decorticator is expected to cost about $60-70k (US) when it hits commercial production.  An enzyme solution is then used to reduce the retting time of the green decorticated fibre from 2-3 weeks, which is normally required with field retting, to a mere 2-3 days.  This is expected to lower the costs and risks of retting and reduce the variability of fibre quality.  More details about the new equipment and retting processes will be released soon.
    New technologies and improve-ments are also happening in the secondary processing areas of pulp and paper and textile manufacturing.
    Med Byrd, Director of Applied Research at North Carolina’s Department of Wood and Paper Science, announced "the days of the behemoth 1,000 ton/day, $1Billion pulp and paper mills are over".  The trend now is to look for options that include 100-300 ton/day ‘mini-mills’ that use agricultural fibres and cost $100-150M.  Like the Australian decorticator mentioned above, these mills can be located close to the source of raw material supply and contribute to rural economic development.
    One of the keys to reducing the size of pulp and paper mills is to eliminate the $300-400M furnaces that are used to power the big mills and control effluent discharges associated with the production of ‘black liquor’.  The lower lignin component in fibre hemp reduces this waste stream and opens up possibilities for new forms of smaller and lower cost power generation and waste treatment systems like thermal depolymerization (TDP).  Paul Baskis, from International Technologies, Inc. of Chicago, Illinois, ran a video describing a continuous flow pilot plant that was constructed in 1993.
    The TDP technology is a chemical reforming and separating process that uses heat and pressure in a water environment to convert organic wastes into water, gas, oil, and solid carbon.  The oil and gas may be used, among other things, to power the TDP process and the hemp processing facility.  The carbon may have industrial value in electronics manufacturing, plastic extrusion, activated charcoal, steel manufacturing, and power generation.  When biomass or organic compounds are processed, the mineral ash produced may find use in the fertilizer industry, which uses similar compounds.
    John Roulac of Hemptech, a publishing and consulting firm based in Ojai, California, provided information on the composite board, hemp seed and seed oil markets.  He emphasized that the capital, technology and infrastructure required for entering the seed and oil markets are significantly lower than with paper or textile production.
    Geof Kime, Director of Operations for Hempline Inc. in Ontario announced that the Canadian government is close to passage of a bill allowing the Minister of Health to issue commercial hemp farming licenses.
    Finally, Dennis Crone from Mackie International Inc., updated the conference on new technological advancements that will speed up the processing and fibre quality of hemp textiles.  Mackie has a long and well established tradition in the manufacture of hemp processing machinery.  And in response to the resurgence of interest in hemp, their company is now bringing onto the market new innovations in hemp textile equipment.  For example, high technology features have been incorporated into the hackling process to improve sliver regularity, increase throughput speeds and reduce labour.  The latest Mackie hemp hackling machine has a capacity of 110 kg/hr of line fibre.  The Hempmack series of Wet Ring Spinning Frames are suitable for spinning fine counts of hemp yarn.  The recent introduction of the more flexible and versatile Hempmach Mark V further increases spinning speeds and improves yarn quality.  Another innovation is the new Demimack Spinning Frame that allows for the dry spinning of both line and tow from sliver for the yarn range Nm 7.2 to Nm 15.
    Perhaps one of the most exiting highlights of the day was an unscheduled presentation by Hugh McKee, President of Flaxcraft.  Mr. KcKee pointed out that major changes are taking place in the linen industry.  Linen producers are upgrading their equipment, and shifting production to America where the mills can avoid paying import duties, reduce transportation costs by being closer to the huge American market, and take advantage of US wage rates that are up to 50% lower than Europe.   Flax is now being grown in Vermont, Maine, Oregon and North Carolina.  Because hemp and flax can be spun on the same machinery, the costs of implementing a new hemp textile infrastructure in North America can be shared between hemp and flax producers with each fibre targeting different segments of the market.  Although hemp fibres are coarser than linen, hemp has the advantage of producing about 60% more bast fibre per acre than flax, and it is more environmentally-friendly because it uses little or no pesticides and herbicides and returns nutrients to the soil as its leaves shed.  Under full production, many experts predict that hemp prices will fall somewhere between those of cotton (at the low end) and linen (at the high end).
    In summary, the conference was decidedly upbeat, with highly tech-nical discussions often punctuated by foot-stomping applause - something more reflective of religious revivals or political conventions than technical conferences.  Although a North American hemp industry has a long way to go, one is left with the feeling that something major is about to happen.
    The Kentucky Fiber Hemp Conference was organized by Joe Hickey, Executive Director, Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association.  Financial assistance was provided by Woody Harrelson, Mackie International (Ireland), Fayette County Farm Bureau, Hemptech, Community Farm Alliance and the North American Industrial Hemp Council (NAIHC).
    Craig Crawford is an environmental consultant with the EcoDesign Group, 16 Glenmount Park Rd., Toronto M4E 2M9, Ontario, Canada.  He was an organizer of the recent Toronto hemp conference called Industrial Hemp: Economic Opportunities for Canada.   He is a member of the board of directors of the North American Industrial Hemp Council (NAIHC) and the newly formed Canadian Agricultural New Uses Council (CANUC).   Craig can be reached at tel. +1 (416) 691-1737 fax. 691-0427 or ihn@interlog.com.