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15/05/2007 00:00:00

Finland: Hemp making comeback

Promising crop yields in southeast

"It looks sparse now, but in the autumn there was such a jungle here
that you couldn't get through", says farmer Ari Niemi.

Stalks of hemp about two metres high fill Niemi's field. The stems,
which are nearly one centimetre thick, break easily. The dried plants
are ready for harvesting.

A century ago the sight would have been a very ordinary one, as the
fast-growing hemp was a very common agricultural plant in Finland.
Nowadays the plant is familiar mainly from pictures of police
operations, because the plant is the raw material for the drug cannabis.

Niemi's plants have a different purpose. The fibre hemp that he grows
almost completely lacks the psychoactive component.

The fibre hemp is used as a source of energy. The crop in Valkeala is
part of an experimental programme by Kotka Energy, where the company is
cultivating hemp as a power source.

There has not been much study in Finland about the applicability of hemp
as an energy plant. Reed canarygrass (phalaris arundinacea) has been the
more common energy crop. Last year the state paid subsidies for the
cultivation of nearly 16,000 hectares of canarygrass, and only for 36
hectares of hemp.

Kotka Energy has planted more than 30 hectares of hemp in different
parts of the Kymenlaakso area. The results of the experiment, which
began last year, are promising.

"Depending somewhat on where it is grown, it would seem to be an even
better-yielding alternative", says Vesa Pirtilä of Kotka Energy.

Like reed canarygrass, hemp used for energy is planted in the spring and
harvested a year later. However, as an annual plant, the seeds have to
be sown each year.

The plant can be burned along with peat or wood chips. The energy from
one hectare of hemp is enough to meet the energy needs of a single
detached house for one year.

The biomass yield from hemp is up to twice that of reed canarygrass.
Hemp is also better suited for burning in a power plant.

However, it is not easy to draw far-reaching conclusions on the basis of
one year's results, because last summer was exceptionally dry. Also,
hemp has its disadvantages as well.

"The problem is, perhaps, that it requires a large amount of fertiliser
and is an annual", said special researcher Katri Pahkala, of Agrifood
Research Finland.

Kotka Energy is nevertheless optimistic about hemp, noting that there
have been good results in Sweden as well.

"Let's hope that the amount of rain in the summer is normal, so that we
can see which way to develop energy from agriculture", Vesa Pirtilä says.

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 10.05.2007

Author: Helsingin Sanomat via UKCIA

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