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Community rallies behind hemp plant

Gilbert Plains facility would employ 30

Robert Jin shows off bales of hemp straw set to be shipped to China to make clothing.

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Robert Jin shows off bales of hemp straw set to be shipped to China to make clothing. (BILL REDEKOP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

GILBERT PLAINS -- Of the purported 25,000 products made from hemp, a new facility here hopes to manufacture at least six of them.

There will be hemp home insulation; hemp building foundations (mixed with limestone); hemp absorbent for cleaning up oil spills, from small garages to industrial accidents; hemp pellets for wood stoves; and hemp bedding for pets and horses.

But those will be just from the byproducts. The primary purpose of the new facility is to process hemp fibre for manufacturing clothes in China.

It's the venture of Chinese businessman Robert Jin. He expects to open the roughly $12-million plant, that promises to employ about 30 people, starting in 2014 in Gilbert Plains, 345 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

Jin's family operates a large hemp textile plant in China. But it can only access 6,000 tonnes of hemp fibre within China, where farms are small and not mechanized. The facility needs another 3,000 tonnes, he said.

So the company began looking overseas. In Manitoba's Parkland, Jin found an area where farmers have been pioneers in growing hemp.

Hemp is the hottest crop on the Prairies. "Right now, a farmer can make more from growing hemp for food than any other crop," said Russ Crawford, president of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance.

And these are still early days for hemp production. "I've been in Canadian agriculture for 40 years (including 20 years at Cargill) and I've never seen a story like this one," Crawford said. "The closest thing was rapeseed (now canola) back in the 1960s and '70s when it was called the Cinderella crop. Hemp goes way beyond that."

But delays in opening Jin's Plains Industrial Hemp Processing plant -- it was supposed to open a couple years ago -- have created skeptics, especially with so much government funding involved. The Harper government has put up $6 million for Jin's project through the vaunted Economic Action Plan -- vaunted by $113 million in tax dollars the Harper government has spent advertising the action plan.

This marks the second large foray into hemp processing in Manitoba by the Harper government's action plan. The first was a disaster. The $6 million the feds loaned to a company in Waskada called Farm Genesis vanished faster than a puck from a faceoff circle. A federal government source admitted the business plan of Farm Genesis was a joke and the money should never have been approved.

But Jin has put up his own money, too. He has spent more than $4 million, he said. The province has also chipped in $500,000 and the RM of Gilbert Plains another $400,000 for land, site preparation and a road.

The Gilbert Plains facility is being delayed by building code issues. And while Jin has imported all-new equipment from China, the technology is not new by North American standards.

No one is more frustrated than Jin. "I work for this project eight years," said Jin, who lives in Gilbert Plains.

The project is about more than just Jin and the federal government, too.

"It really has been a community project, how the community has rallied," said Marnie Kostur, executive director of Parkland Agricultural Resource Co-op (PARC), a group of local eight municipalities that has worked with Jin.

For example, when Jin needed a forklift to unload 20 containers of equipment from China, the local co-op volunteered to drive a forklift down the highway to do the unloading, she said.

Jin arrived in Manitoba under the provincial nominee program's business class, which requires a certain level of investment by newcomers. "He's considered one of the major successes," said Kostur.

Local growers are also pulling for Jin. "Anything that's going to further the development of turning industrial hemp into fibre is a terrific thing," said Chris Dzisiak, president of the Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers Association.

Jin will pay growers $80 to $90 per tonne for hemp straw the farmers don't normally use after they cut their crop for seed. However, he will have to find markets for hemp byproducts for his facility to succeed, he said. Co-op stores have already started taking some of its hemp absorbent. Hemp is also in demand for insulation and building foundations because it breathes, allowing moisture to escape.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

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