By Nichole Huck
Saskatchewan is set to become home to the first industrial hemp refinery in North America. This is what happens when a progressive prairie town looking for innovative ideas to revitalize their community meets with a socially responsible and equally innovative Canadian company.
Craik, Saskatchewan, located centrally between Regina and Saskatoon, has a sign proclaiming it to be “the friendliest town by a dam site,” but it may also soon be “the environmentally friendliest town by a dam site.” The community is well known to environmental groups across the province and is making a name for itself across the country as well.
Four years ago Lynn Oliphant, a retired professor from the University of Saskatchewan, approached the mayor of Craik, Rod Haugerud, because he had an idea for an eco-village where a group of people could get together and live more sustainably off the land. “We were looking for something different to keep our town alive. All rural towns are looking for something to sustain them. The idea of doing it environmentally friendly was a good idea too,” said Haugerud.
The project expanded to the point where Craik needed an interpretive centre for the village, so the idea for an eco-centre was born. The eco-centre has incorporated as many energy efficient and ecologically sound features as possible in the construction, heating and cooling of the building. There are demonstrations of all the technologies used, including strawbale construction, geo-thermal heating, solar energy, and heat exchange Earth tubes. People can tour the centre and if they see something they like, the centre has contacts so they can get in touch with someone for more detailed information.
Craik has quickly become known as the place for new green technology. Since the original eco-village idea emerged, many more professors who are interested in green technology have proposed pilot projects for the community. So, it came as no surprise when representatives from the town of Craik were invited to a conference in Ottawa last February to do a presentation on sustainable communities.
At the conference, the Craik participants received hemp tote bags from Hemptown Clothing based in BC. When the group returned home, the town administrator, Shirley Eade, decided to order some hemp t-shirts from the company for the golf course (also an eco-project). She read on the Hemptown website that they have a “dirt to shirt” philosophy and that the company was working with the National Research Council to produce a new hemp enzyme for breaking down hemp in a more cost-effective way. When Eade phoned the company to place the order, she asked where they were planning to put up the processing plant, and asked why not Craik?
A few e-mails and a couple of conversations later, the town of Craik and Jason Finnis (president and founder of Hemptown Clothing) had reached a deal where Hemptown would receive 80 acres of land and a promise of tax concessions for the next five years, and Craik would receive a $5 million plant. That translates into 11 new full time positions and a new business that is worth as much as all the homes in the town combined. “The people of my community are all of a sudden very optimistic about the future of Craik. We have been holding our own, but we have been dropping 10 to 20 people every census, and yet now there is a buzz of excitement around the community,” said Haugerud.
Jason Finnis started Hemptown Clothing 10 years ago when he was a music student at university. He saw an article on the benefits of industrial hemp for papermaking. Compared to trees, “It produced more paper per acre and that was a bit of an epiphany for me,” said Finnis. “I had wanted to start a business for a long time and that was the catalyst.”
Finnis soon realized that hemp paper was very expensive and there was a small market, so he looked towards textiles. The only problem was that at the time (prior to 1998), it was illegal to grow hemp in Canada. “My main goal at the time was to try and spread enough of a message to re-legalize hemp and build a market for products so that the government could see there was a market and it was a worthwhile crop to grow.”
However, even when the market for hemp products in Canada grew, there were still no processing facilities for hemp fibre. Hemptown Clothing currently has its factory in China, a country that has been growing hemp since 8000 BC. “We are concerned with making money, but we won’t do that at the expense of human rights or the environment,” said Finnis, whose Chinese factory is inspected monthly by a Hemptown representative.
From Dirt to Shirt
The mandate of Hemptown Clothing has always been “dirt to shirt,” which means it is completely vertically integrated—from growing the crop, to processing it, to shipping the end product. But the problem was that processing hemp fibre has historically been very labour intensive and could take up to 45 days, making it very uneconomical because of high labour costs in North America.
Early this year the company began speaking to the National Research Council (NRC) to try and work on a process that would cut that time down to a few days. The NRC is in the business of furthering science and technology for economic gain. The NRC developed a new enzyme, designed to make hemp feel softer but remain durable. “The enzymatic process will take it down to five hours, and five hours means it can be set in the same day that plants are harvested, rather than a month,” said Finnis. The technological breakthrough is amazing considering that the NRC and Hemptown are less than a year into the collaboration and they have already surpassed all existing technology in the world.
Hemptown is hoping to start construction of the plant in Craik next year, and to be producing textiles in Canada by 2007. Finnis has been gathering contracts to supply fibre to people in eastern Canada and the USA who want to build things with processed hemp. Hemptown intends to patent the enzymatic process. Hemp fibre that can’t be used for textiles can be used for automobile interior moulding, fireboard, and alternative fuels such as ethanol.
This is exciting news for Craik because “the companies are telling Jason that they need to be close to the mill. That means more jobs and more companies coming to the area,” said Haugerud. “The farmers and the town of Craik find that a lot of their kids will leave because there are opportunities elsewhere, and we are trying to ensure that jobs remain in rural, small town Canada so that family farms will be carried on,” said Finnis. “We are triple bottom line. That means that we put people, profits, and the planet on the same level.”
In addition to attracting industry to rural Saskatchewan, Hemptown and Craik will be responsible for replacing cotton production (which is one of the top users of chemical pesticides and fertilizers on the planet) with a crop that can grow organically in Canada. In addition to pesticides and fertilizers, cotton also uses a lot more water than hemp. “The cotton used in a typical t-shirt requires 7,040 gallons of fresh water to grow. That’s enough water in one t-shirt to drink for nine and a half years,” said Finnis.
“The thing that has to change in the hemp industry is consumers, people buying t-shirts. They have to realize where cotton is coming from and what it is doing to the environment,” said Finnis. “Just like when people were eating at McDonald’s 15 years ago and getting their Big Macs in those styrofoam containers—almost overnight it was realized that those styrofoam containers were putting a hole in the ozone layer and people were picketing McDonalds. People need to make the connection that there is a strong link between cancer and pesticides.”
Nichole Huck is a journalism student at the University of Regina and has recently joined the Briarpatch board of directors. For more information about the eco-village or hemp products visit www.craikecovillage.ca and www.hemptown.com.