Cultivation of Cannabis fiber varieties in central Finland

J.C. Callaway1 and A.M. Hemmilä2

1Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, University of Kuopio
POB 1627, FIN-70211 Kuopio, Finland
2Metsätie 8, FIN-41500 Hankasalmi as, Finland

   The cultivation of Cannabis has a very long tradition in Finnish agriculture.  The earliest evidence of Cannabis use and cultivation in Finland has been radiocarbon dated to 3,000 and 5,000 years ago, respectively, a time which corresponds with the Finnish Stone Age (Laitinen 1995, Vuorela 1995).  These findings suggest that early-blooming varieties of Cannabis were once native to this region, and that this plant had agricultural value.      Many Finns over 60 years of age remember the cultivation of this durable fiber plant, and especially its use in the fabrication of rope and sacks for agricultural products.  However, Cannabis has not been extensively cultivated in Finland since the 1960s.
    The typical Finnish farm is family owned, and often exists as a relatively small-scale operation.  Increasing industrialization since the early 1940s, in combination with more recent European Union (EU) agricultural restrictions, has left the Finnish farmer in need of valuable cash crops to maintain what is left of the family farm.  Until recently, forests were often sold to offset agricultural losses, however, this strategy is now being recognized as only a short-term solution to a much larger problem.  Since the long Summer days of high-latitude regions promote rapid asexual growth in Cannabis, we saw the reintroduction of fiber hemp as a potentially significant contribution to the cultural and agricultural life of the Nordic countryside.
    In collaboration with the Culture Secretary of Hankasalmi, Finland, we began the Hankasalmi Hemp Project in the Autumn of 1994, with the intention of demonstrating fiber hemp as a non-food agriculture product during the Summer of 1995.   We planned to present a small scale model for the cultivation of hemp, so that almost any motivated individual could manufacture limited runs of specialty hemp paper, yarn and fabrics during the long winter months as potential sources of additional income and creative expression.  Our primary goal is to return some amount of autonomy to our agricultural community in the coming years.  The following is an account of our experience, which may be of use to others who plan to reintroduce Cannabis within their local cultural context.

Trial Preparations
   The seed of two French varieties of fiber hemp (Futura-77 and Fedora-19) were delivered to the Hankasalmi Culture Secretary's office by surface post, eight weeks before planting.  We encountered no problems with their importation.  The local sheriff was informed of the planting six weeks after the seeds arrived.  The two varieties were mixed and planted in several plots throughout central Finland during the first two weeks in June, at densities ranging from 50-100 seeds/m2, and harvested between mid-August and early October (Table 1).

  Table 1.   Events, days and corresponding dates for the development of fiber hemp in central Finland during 1995.  
  Event Day   Date

Height (cm)

  Local sheriff informed
Police collect samples
Police collect samples
Early harvest of 0.5 Ha plot
Frost -2 °C
Frost -6 °C
Police collect samples
Final harvest
  April 24
June 13
July 4
August 6
August 16
September 15
September 17
September 28
October 14

    Local and regional reporters were invited to witness the planting of the educational plot in the middle of a small village of about 3,000 inhabitants, and informed of our purpose.  We also carefully explained the differences between hemp and marijuana, in an attempt to circumvent potential misunderstandings of this controversial plant.  Levels of THC were monitored throughout the summer (Table 2) by gas chromatography with mass spectrometric detection (GC-MS), using an undisclosed method, by the Central Crime Laboratory in Helsinki, Finland.

Table 2. Results from forensic testing of Futura-77 and Fedora-19 (courtesy of the Central Crime Laboratory in Helsinki.)
  Day Date %THC  
June 13
July 4
August 6
September 28

   Weed suppression by Cannabis was effective against common weeds, since none of them grew faster than hemp.  The maximum growth rate was recorded to be 3.8 cm/day during July 7-29, days 24-46 (Figure 1).   Day lengths during this time of rapid growth ranged from 20-18 hours, respectively.   By early August (day 54), tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) had increased to 0.08%, from the previous 0.04% level at day 21 (Table 2).

Figure 1. Fiber hemp growth rate (1995) in central Finland at 62.2° N. latitude.

    Soon after a dubious newspaper article was published on this last fact, we began to witness crop predation by local misinformed youth, which technically is a crime in Finland.  As the situation continued to deteriorate, a decision was quickly made by Project members to have an 'early harvest’ of the educational plot on August 16 (day 64), to preserve the high community spirit which had already formed around the Hankasalmi Hemp Project.  Fortunately, several smaller plots of these and other varieties of Cannabis were grown simultaneously in more remote areas without informing the press, and local authorities allowed this to continue as long as it did not become a problem.
    Surprisingly, the appearance of the remaining crops were not significantly affected by a series of night frosts between September 15-28 (days 94-96).   The larger leaves typically regained their form after wilting, over the course of the following day, as temperatures increased above freezing.  At no time were male or female inflorescences observed on any plants.  Long photoperiod maintenance of this vegetative state probably contributed to the crop’s sustained growth until harvest (Figure 1).  Less than 1% of the total plant population succumbed to mold.  Some plants reached an overall height of 400 cm, and some had a base circumference of 5.5 cm by the October 14 harvest (day 123).

Community Involvement
   After the Hankasalmi educational field was harvested, about 300 kg of plant material was immediately taken to a local lake for retting.  The remaining material was plowed into the field rather than burned.   Fiber from the dried, retted stalks were hand-collected by a children's art class and used for the production of hand-made paper.  Plants from other plots were cut in October and also retted in water.  With the more mature plants, retting was accomplished in about 10 days, and the moist bast fibers were easily removed from the stalks by hand.  Further soaking under a variety of conditions, or dried directly, resulted in several distinct collections of dry fiber and pulp masses.
    Most local elected officials in Hankasalmi appreciated the positive benefits of free popular attention for the community.  Over 30 articles have already been published in Finnish newspapers and agricultural magazines on various aspects of the Project.  One member (AMH) even had a spot on the national news (August 16, the educational field being harvested just after it was used as a backdrop for the interview).
    The Project officially concluded on September 9, 1995 with a day-long informational seminar, reviewing the events and presenting future possibilities (Kolehmainen et al. 1995).  The seminar featured a diverse group of 10 speakers, including the local farmers, green activists, a historian, elected officials from the local government, researchers, paper artists and representatives from the International Hemp Association and the Finnish Forest and Agricultural Ministry.   Over 50 invited participants attended the seminar, which was also covered by local, regional and national media.  A wide variety of literature was on display, in addition to many hemp-related products.  We borrowed items from a local farm that were last used for the production of hemp rope in 1964.  In addition, a 50 year old hemp rug was lent by the regional museum of handycrafts.  Such a hemp product is extremely rare in Finland, since fibers were aggressively recycled during shortages in the 1940s.  The elderly woman who had made it was registered for the seminar, but unfortunately passed away only a month before she could attend.

   Although the two French hemp varieties were mixed, no variation was readily apparent in any of the plots.  Fortunately, for our purposes, these strains of Cannabis were routinely bred for THC levels below 0.3%.   This was certainly a useful point in our discussions with officials.   Previously in Finland, forensic test results were simply reported as 'positive' or 'negative' for THC in criminal cases involving Cannabis, no prior consideration having ever been made for actual amounts.  It is interesting to note that levels of THC in our plants grown at a latitude of 62° were approximately half the maximum level claimed for the same varieties grown in France.
    Although we applied for the EU hemp subsidy for the 0.5 ha plot, the regional agricultural office in Jyväsklä announced that no subsidy would be granted.   Initially this agency had informed us that only a portion of the subsidy would be allowed, due to the early harvest and consequent low yield.  However, in December, Project members were informed, without explanation, that no subsidy would be allowed.   Just recently we were informed by a local agricultural official thet the subsidy was refused by the EU because "the plants were cut before they made seeds".
    It has been decided that the 'non-drug' cultivation of hemp will be allowed to continue in Finland.  Although the cultivation of Cannabis has never been prohibited in Finland, the law currently states that 'Cannabis sativa' may not be cultivated for 'drug-purposes'.  Therefore, it can be argued that someone who uses any variety of Cannabis for drug purposes would be technically in violation of the law, no matter how low the concentrations of THC may be.  On the other hand, even high THC varieties can be grown, in theory, as long as the intent is not for 'drug-purposes'.  The issue of medical marijuana has not yet been seriously considered in Finland.
    Both law enforcement officials and members of the Hankasalmi Hemp Project underestimated the amount of positive public support and interest in the reintroduction of Cannabis.  In our experience, we found it extremely useful to inform public officials and other individuals of our work, and to form cooperative alliances with a wide variety of individuals and agencies.  In particular, similar startup projects should certainly have open dialogue with local elected officials, law enforcement agencies, farmers, ecological activists, people from the arts and crafts, teachers, health care professionals and members of the business community.  Another important factor to consider is how the event will be covered by the news media, and a special effort must be made to provide reporters with accurate verbal and printed information.  Finally, at least for the foreseeable future, one should expect a certain amount of political fall-out from the past 30 years of political propaganda directed against Cannabis.
    On the bright side, our greater rewards were an overall positive national awareness of the plant in Finland and the continuing possibility of re-introducing Cannabis into modern Finnish culture.

   We gratefully acknowledge the technical support of David Pate and thank the International Hemp Association for supplying our hemp seed.  Special thanks are due to Ulla Kolehmainen, the third member of the Hankasalmi Hemp Project and Culture Secretary of Hankasalmi, who made the 0.5 hectare educational plot in Hankasalmi available for this project.  We would also like to thank DC from the Ohio Hempery, Inc. and John Roulac from Hemptech.