Long before farmer Bernie Wickenheiser knew much about the nutritional benefits of hemp, he was intrigued by the utility and even the personality of this unique plant.
“The reason I started growing it is that it fits in an organic rotation real nice — it was something I could seed late,” Bernie remembers as he surveys a vast green patch of jagged leaves unfurled on the plains of Alberta. “With the hemp you take the seed off and everything else is going back into the land.”
Building richness in the soil while seeking the right ecological balance to manage weeds and insects is both science and art for veganic farmers. Farming without chemicals or compounds is exhilarating, but also daring at times. It’s a performance without a net, as Bernie discovered once again just this past summer.
While his American cousins to the south were struggling with drought, Bernie faced a season of heavy rains that triggered excessive weed growth. “I put in hemp seed in early June, and two weeks down the road since we had so much rain the weeds started to come and actually started outgrowing the hemp, so what I had to do is make a major decision,” he recalls.
Someone who cared less about the land and the consumer might have been tempted to spray the fields with herbicide to destroy the weeds. It was an option that would certainly be easy to rationalize.
But Bernie is not a conventional farmer, in any sense. Instead of giving himself a loophole, he gambled with his livelihood and plowed under the entire crop, then set about to replant the field.
“What I did was cultivate the whole field again and I re-seeded it,” he says. “But it was a 100 percent gamble, seeding it quite a bit later. All it takes sometimes is one year of hard driving rain and it stimulates so many weeds to grow, and it doesn’t matter what you do, you’re not going to win. Sometimes you have to just plow the field under.”
That kind of iron integrity is common in the veganic farmers we meet on our journeys across the Canadian heartland and throughout North America. There’s a solid core of conscience that ensures that these hardy individuals never have to think twice about doing the right thing. And so day after day, season after season, that is what they do: live up to their own high standards, without a government regulator and trade association representative in sight.
Seventeen years ago, Bernie began farming 200 acres while working a second job in the oil fields to make ends meet. That land had been cultivated for many years by his father, who farmed and taught school at the same time. Ironically, it was the imperative to pay bills that prompted Bernie to explore organic farming. It didn’t take long for curiosity to warm to passion.
“In 2006 I took the plunge to become organic, the main reason being when I first started organic was strictly a money thing. I had been losing money on the farm, so I had to do something. I started going to some seminars, and then two years down the road I started saying, holy smokes this is a moral thing not a money thing; an ethical thing, understanding what all these sprays, all these chemicals and fertilizers actually do to the human body.”
As his ecological consciousness grew, so did the parameters of his organic kingdom, from 200 acres to 1,100. He quit the oil business and devoted full time to cultivating niche crops such as hemp. The thriving operation is decidedly a family affair, with Bernie’s parents still helping out, and wife Leanne playing an indispensable role. Not to mention their three young children, who keep it all in perspective.
“Everything is memorable from when you get up in the morning to when you go to bed at night,” he says. “There’s not one thing you’re going to do exactly the same from day to day. I’m constantly evolving, constantly on the phone talking to people. I love to learn about farming. I have such a passion for it. I’ll go out and walk through the crop, and if I have an hour in the afternoon I’ll go back to the same crop and walk through. I love to learn how the crop is growing, especially the hemp. The hemp is such an interesting crop to watch growing. It grows crazy. You know, it’s a weed and it loves heat and it loves water and if you look after it, it will produce for you.”
Beyond its exotic appearance and personality, this quirky plant had more surprises in store. “The more I got into it, that’s when I started learning about all the advantages of the health aspects,” he says. “It’s one of the few foods that has all of your omega oils, and you could actually live on hemp alone.”
Hemp is not just loaded with nutrition, its many benefits are in perfect balance. For example, it has more Omega-3 than fish, but also a near ideal ratio with Omega-6. The unassuming seed is tremendously rich in protein, contains all essential amino acids, plus vitamin E, B vitamins, folic acid, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and calcium. It’s one of the great undiscovered sources of nutrition, energy and vitality.
As incredible as nature’s ultimate power plant may be, an even rarer discovery is hemp grown by a farmer devoted to complete transparency. Bernie is excited by One Degree’s revolutionary idea of harvest to home traceability.
“You know, I think that should be taught in school,” he says. “City people really don’t have a clue what it takes to get bread to the table. Not everybody, but probably kids in particular don’t have that understanding that a vegetable comes from a garden — you’ve got to go pull a carrot out of the garden and it’s got to be washed before it goes to the grocery store. I think if that was taught at a very early age you’d have more people saying, ‘I want to get back to the basics.’”
For every farmer in every state and province, transparency has the potential to become the new high standard. For farmers like Bernie, it’s also a concept that promotes a measure of recognition, allowing the purity of their harvests and the virtue of their daily labor to become known to a wider audience, consumers weary of hype and hungry for candor.
“I think that’s tremendous,” he says. “And I think it’s tremendous for the farmers. You know what, every farmer should be accountable for what they do.”
— Charlie Dodge