Ben Dronkers and Modern dutch hemp

 

' An Industrial Fairy Tale'

 


Princess Hemp arrived at the Eco-Ball after the feast had been cleared away, but stayed to charm the captains of industry who were taken by her verdant freshness of strength and delicacy. All admired her splendid gown and necklace of sparkling hempseeds. All were awed by her spotless ancient heritage and bright prospects for the future, but nobody dared be the first to ask her to dance.

When quizzed concerning her loyalty to the Dragon, she pointed to the gallows in the courtyard and turned away. The industrial hopefuls backed off, complaining of the heat as the Princess hid behind her hemp leaf fan to blush in a private defiance.

The curfew chimed at midnight, and the tow-haired beauty dashed past the guards and into the night, leaving a single hemp-silk slipper behind. The handsome bureaucrat searched throughout the kingdom for another one, but his search was in vain as he was looking in all the wrong places for his vanished blind date. As far as we know, he's still looking...

In truth, Princess Hemp was rescued by Captain Ben Dronkers, the fearless leader of the Pot Pirate fleet. Together they sailed away to Cannabis Island, where they will build a castle, plant a garden, train the dragons as pets and live free and happily ever after.

In February 1994 the Dutch government released a report called "Dutch Hemp for Paper." It took 17 million guilders and four years of research by a galaxy of Euroresearchers, and it fully endorsed hemp as a most suitable source for papermaking in their vestpocket of a nation.

The report was offered to the leading Dutch paper industry luminaries, yet although they were curious they didn't jump at the chance to go hemp. After all, where was this weed of wonder? These were practical people and they wanted to see it for themselves.

Trees could be counted on, albeit at great cost, and there were still mountains of recycled paper to deal with. "Nice idea," said the big bad wolves, "call us when you have a lot of it at a cheap price." A chill moved through the hempsters' warm dream of a quick, tree-free hempen victory.

Just as things looked most bleak, the good ship Sensi Seeds appeared on the horizon, with privateer pot proponent Ben Dronkers in command. They were sailing boldly into rough seas of industrial contention, hemp pirate flags flapping in the breeze of opportunities, to rescue the weed of wonder from commercial reluctance and restore it to its proper sphere of service.

This was Dronkers' own money, so he could do pretty much what he liked with it. Money may not talk, but people tend to listen to them that has it, and Dronkers' pirate song was simple: "hi ho, plant hemp!"

The Marijuana Museum

Ben Dronkers is no stranger to public benevolence when it comes to the cannabis plant. The Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum in downtown Amsterdam is perhaps his most famous contribution to public education concerning the history of this huge yet mysteriously ignored aspect of human behaviour in modern cultural life.

Here, archival displays of historic Dutch hemp cultivation and processing inform the visitors of hemp's heyday. Living marijuana plants scent the air, growing free. A world class library of cannabis literature fills an entire alcove of bookshelves. This museum dedicated to the cannabis plant and its many personalities is a shrine for countless pot pilgrims from every corner of terra firma, who learn that hemp and marijuana are very different aspects of the same amazing weed.

The Contraband Caravan

Marijuana farming is a kazillion dollar ferret hole home industry around the world, thanks to Sensi Seeds, yet it is the vision of hemp as a new raw material for the future that is now being gifted from the hand of its pirate patron... thanks to the Sensi Seed fortune footing the tab.

Ben Dronkers makes no bones about arriving at "Hemp Island" by route of the contraband caravan. He describes his philosophy as "We have the potential to make the environment go in a good direction, but it will require industry to realize it and want it. It might take 10 years or even 20, but hemp's time will come." He's a city kid who grew up in Rotterdam in post war Holland, but was also an avid bird watcher as a youth. He adds, "If we are ever to achieve a bonding between materials, plants, and people, hemp must be considered."

Short haired, clean shaven, and partial to nattily tailored suits, Ben Dronkers is as openly fond of his ever-present spliff as Castro is of his cigar. And why not? Both are fine domestic products of their respective realms. Dronkers has not assumed a posture of feigned compliance to the beige creed of straightdom in order to cut some bold deals with the briefcase crowd. Such cowardly duplicity is not the way of a noble pirate profiteer.

The Dronkers family have openly operated the Sensi Seed Bank in downtown Rotterdam for about a decade. Sensi Seeds are the Cadillacs of marijuana cultivators worldwide and command the highest prices. New varieties appearing under the Sensi Seed label assume classic status within months of introduction to the market.

The Sensi Seed staff conduct meticulous seed breeding programs under the direction of skilled breeders, and offer shrewd marketing strategies to bring these creations of Dronkers psychodelicatessen to a casual world market that is worth untold millions of dollars annually. Their full colour catalogue of choice potent pot varieties is offered in separate editions for Dutch, German, French, Spanish, and English speaking cannabis connoisseurs. Nothing is ever on sale and it's strictly cash or plastic.

Sensi Seeds is a just-short-of-Royal commercial goldmine that pumps a lot of money back into the Dutch national economy. How much is handed over the the authorities is a matter for Interpirate Affairs, but enough spills over to leave Ben Dronkers a very rich man. He freely admits that he has "made millions, millions from selling marijuana seeds" and he is willing and able to divert a good chunk of his marijuana windfall into midwifing the rebirth of industrial hemp in Holland.

The Cannabis Cow
Dronkers and his people are furiously milking their cannabis cow for every drop they possibly can before pressure from France shuts them down. He fears, and rightly so, that a ruling from the European Community will override individual rights within Dutch domestic policy regarding all things cannabis Ñ pot and hemp both. The clout of Eurowill may steadily diminish and greatly narrow tolerant accommodation of this leisure industry to the point of strangulation.

"Seeds might be legal right now," says Ben, adding that "We grow only legal seeds... but all our beautiful varieties, this they want to stop. It may soon be forbidden to grow seeds but we will be able to sell seeds." He smirks as he notes "We have about 2 or 3 years worth of seeds we will be permitted to sell, but we won't be allowed to grow new seeds anymore soon."

Smoke Across the Border

News that America has obtained a two fingered grip onto legal medical marijuana will have no influence whatsoever on the fate of the seed source industries. By the year 2000, at the rate things are moving, Sensi Seeds and all the other Dutch cannabis-for-smoking seed companies may just disappear from the commercial directories of the world. Get them while you can - seeds are living things and if properly stored, will last 5 years in your refrigerator.

Even two years ago it looked like the whole cannabis leisure industry was picking up their chits to go legal, right down to the shoeshine. Then the French government released a hornet's nest of protest against cannabis. What surprised Dronkers and other observers was the sheer nastiness of the pressure to stop all that marijuana plant foolishness immediately.

France claims that second hand smoke from Dutch tolerance policies was wafting over to their space and blighting French traditions. They have whistled for the Eurodogs to come running, as is their privilege to do so under the New Europe guidelines. Remember these are the same folks who charged Michka with cannabis libel, convicted her, and fined her one franc.

The Grapemen of France
The grape is sacred to the French and they have built it into a mighty industry that is the blood and song of their nation. They will not have anyone screwing around with their liquid heritage.

Although they retain their legions of admirers, French vintners are no longer the only jewel box libation offered on the chalkboards of Bacchus anymore. Fine or even finer wine from vineyards in Ontario, California, Australia, and post-apartheid South Africa are thumping it out with French wines across dinner tables from Hong Kong to Paris.

The arrival of high end marijuana, smoking up big money otherwise spent on wine, women and song, is just one more headache for the grapemen of France. But marijuana is perhaps the only fledgling competition they have any legal prayer of killing in its nest. As one might guess, money is at the bottom of this struggle for world leisure dollars and France is battling on deadly ground.

As a member of the Euroneighbourhood, Holland listens to the popping of angry corks and the tender concerns of her sister France very carefully. Nobody wants a showdown but everybody wants their own way. But which way? In the meantime the Dutch will continue in their policy of tolerance to cannabis use, and point to their success in bargaining in the best interests of their own people concerning the reality of cannabis use in modern life.

The Good Ones
The mayor of Amsterdam has stated "We got a lot of coffeeshops. Some of them we will have to close down but we will keep the good ones." There was ample evidence that this is already well under way. In November this correspondent covering the war on drugs noticed that some of the skuzzier smoke holes have indeed disappeared. Other borderline smoke-a-terias have added more bathrooms and fire exits to their places of business. These "good ones" will probably just carry on for the time being, fire regulations permitting. Marijuana tourism is just too important for the city of Amsterdam to dismiss at one go.

"I drink French wine" says Ben, "I think it is very good stuff." He pauses to light a pungent Nederspliff and adds "There is wine, there is marijuana, both of them are good things to enjoy. Why won't they let me smoke a joint?" He exhales a question mark that lingers in the air.

But quick as a flash the Bart Simpson within merges with the spirit of Richie Rich to carry on with the cartoon adventures of SuperWeed. The celebrated Mr Dronkers grins with impish delight as he describes his plan of putting time, money, and energy into building a viable Dutch Industrial Hemp enterprise from the ground up. He has feet firmly planted in both cannabis camps, and knows full well he is in the position to shape the destinies of these promising twin industries that are taking the country by storm.

Faith over Thought

Dronkers and his people formed HempFlax corporation on the heels of the Dutch Hemp for Paper Report, in a serious bid to wrestle hemp into service of his fellow Homo Sapiens and the world we share with the plants and animals around us. They have begun by purchasing a farm in the heart of the traditional Dutch flax growing district for very cheap.

It's situated on poor agricultural soil and its remoteness made it an ideal testing ground for their pioneer hemp trials. They also bought a mothballed cardboard box factory which Dronkers maintains "was the bargain of a lifetime!" Arrangements were made with Dutch authorities in OudePekela and permission was granted from the Nederfeds to sow 345 acres of certified low THC cannabis. HempFlax was now an active verb, no longer a dream.

They went into the whole idea with their eyes open and their mouths closed. Nothing like this had been done before. Nobody had worked hemp within living memory. No standards existed and there wasn't even a buyer for the finished product, but in it went. Faith presided over rational thinking. They had friends just as crazy as themselves to help out, and a reasonably compliant government to nod approval at their voyage of discovery. HempFlax prepared to launch modern industrial hemp into Eco-Orbit.

HempFlax planned to carry on with flax even if they lost money doing it. Calculated as a loss, it could even be written off for tax purposes. "How could we lose? We could operate the flax factory and introduce hemp into the field." This way of doing things is in sharp contrast to how Canada went about their own hempen foray. Our farmers not only had to pay their own way, but had to tangle with the Feds as if they were testing out machine guns in a schoolyard at recess.

Hemp Friendly Machines
Puzzled by the abrupt changes in their traditional way of doing things, the flax people dropped out. HempFlax didn't have flax anymore, but they still had their hemp. More importantly, they had the knowledge of hemp that had worked in their first experiment. "The way to do it now," says a weary Ben, "the way we should grow and process hemp, is by machines. No question about it."

Encouraged by the initial success of their custom built hemp machines, his staff are preparing to go beyond the confines of tradition by developing sophisticated harvesting and processing machinery that is fit to perform the Herculean task of working up the mountains of golden hemp cellulose. "We developed a hemp friendly machine from ideas collected from the flax people and what we could learn from some of the very few old Dutch hempsters we could find."

The arrival of modern hemp unfortunately coincides with the passing on of these old time hemp people to their heavenly rewards. This loss of practical insight about the nature and feel of hemp is sorely missed by this new breed of hemp agronauts. Any self respecting Neolithic tribe could call upon a vast pool of collected hempen wisdom without so much hassle.

HempFlax was able to source and obtain a fibre breaking machine strong enough for the tough bast fibres of hemp. A few modifications and a million and a half guilders later they had a completely mechanical process to handle all their hemp. "It took 4 tons of raw product into the front and spit out 1.5 tons at the end." say Ben, "and it worked! Except that it was small. It didn't deliver on the scale that we required, but it worked! It produced beautiful hemp fibres and the hemp "wood" was very nice as well.

"But instead of receiving 1.5 tons of fibre all we really ended up with was 1.3 tons. We never counted on such loss from our process..."

The key words here are "beautiful hemp fibres" and "nice wood." Loss can be remedied by eliminating problems, but quality must be a part of any successful manufacturing process, even if you're only making a tray of cookies.

Further tinkering will no doubt improve the output ratios and begin to suggest a profit wedge toehold for HempFlax to ascend the mountain of hemp potential. It will be a long, steep climb before anyone at HempFlax can rest and admire the view, but there are vistas there to be surveyed.

Deeper into the Heart of Hemp
HempFlax panged deeply from growing pains and it began to look like the whole experiment would never break even. Dronkers himself toyed with the downside of innovation with a classic zonker-zen response. "If you can't make it, you can't make it." They had to work harder to find solutions or go under, losing everything.

Everyone involved saw the necessity of a full re-evaluation of the entire hemp operation, and to look at ways to make it work better if they were to stay in the business of hemp at all.

Now, a Canadian would typically cut back the size of the operation and then fret as they watched it dry up and die. Enough bitching would qualify it as firewood for the government enquiry industry and maybe the CBC would continue to ignore it in favour of other cathode crybabies.

But this was Holland, this was the mighty Ben Dronkers and this is how they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps after their boots had worn through and their socks had gone slack. Even at low tide, the Dutch character does not turn crabby. "Some of the farmers would come in from the field with ideas and we would all work on them together. We would have brainstorming at night Ñ they with their beers and me with my joints. We came up with solutions."

As a result of careful calculations HempFlax decided to go for broke, to push the pedal to the metal and drive even deeper into the heart of hemp. The matter of scale arose as it was so often to do again and again. They decided to gamble on building an even bigger machine that would handle twice the volume Ð 8 tons in the mouth and try for 3 tons out the backshutes. What did come out of the bigger machine was of better quality and was cheaper to produce. HempFlax is very encouraged with the results of their wager and looks to even better results in the future.

Do it Big
Hemp for paper is a great idea. Everybody wants it, it's just too bad nobody is buying a lot of it yet. Hemp Flax looked into the enormous world marketplace of fine paper very early in the game, with an eye on bringing home the hemp to this lucrative market. The reality of it all has inoculated them from the rabid enthusiasm of other armchair eco-industrialists who would see hemp skating up to the net and firing goal after goal upon the wicked tree molesters, who make our paper in their evil kettles of filth.

"You can't make hemp into paper right away," says the ever cool Dronkers, noting that "There is so much paper in the world already." He admits that "It will take time to change," and adds with a smile "but we will change also, and we will be there when it happens."

"If someone comes to you and wants to do something with hemp, you have to do it big, because you will have to be producing next year and the year after that" sings the unshakable Mr Dronkers, who eyes scale of production as the only way to fly. This is a piece of de facto hemplore that must be considered by anyone else seeking eco-financing for a similar hempen enterprise that hopes to go commercial.

This stoic advice would also be well hearkened by other modern hemp producing nations (such as Canada) who are watching for a signal within the speed limit to proceed. Tiny Holland grows hemp by the multi thousand acre pop... huge Canada is still dabbling in hemp by the mere pillowcase measure. Hand me the Tylenol.

The cozy dream of a billion Smurfs growing care-bear sized plots of hemp for a Rainbow Bright Barbie hemp collective just isn't up to industrial expectations for a hungry planet. Hemp thinking will have to step over the "small is beautiful" eco-kosher opinion, treehuggers still wet behind the ears from whale watching who oppose the idea of hemp becoming just another big business. I, for one, do not relish the idea of hand harvesting a million acres of hemp with a machete.

Surfing the Hempen Bounty
The considerable creative energies that the Sensi Seed sensibility employed to turn the hybrid marijuana marketplace upside-down is now harnessed to nurturing this promising new crop off the placenta of easy street and onto the breast of human kindness, where the milk to sustain this growing infant will be merrily suckled.

The most remarkable achievement of HempFlax is the design and development of an efficient hemp harvesting machine that surfs the fields of luxurious hempen bounty like none other before it. "It cost a fortune but it runs like a motorbike" adds Ben, puffing up a storm, high with enthusiasm about his toys for a sustainable agro-industry of peace and plenty that promises to outlast us all.

One such hemp harvester alone replaces endless days of backbreaking human and animal toil in the field when sweat equity was the sole, and therefore traditional method of bringing in the sheaves. New machinery models are on the drawing boards and only await their chance at mechanical karma.

HempFlax stays in touch with advances other European nations have achieved in the hunt for better hemp. Innovations, technique refinements, and cost cutting strategies are not the closely guarded industrial secrets one would imagine. Holland gets high and chats openly with German, French, Swiss, British, Australian, and Canadian hemp hopefuls to share in the wealth of newly emerging hemp technology. Nobody would dream of operating a hemp monopoly. How could they dare? Everybody can grow it and do it up and then take it from there. Every tradition was once a new idea.

Good and Loyal Citizens
Eurohemp's last incarnation was for war production, when Vodka, Gin, and Whiskey took on Schnapps and Saki. Those hempsters grew angry from their unhappy-hour fluid sacraments, and poured volatile juices into the bellies of their iron warhorses and steel eagles to deny opportunities to others in the days before global 911.

This new generation of relaxed and able Eurohempsters will have none of that. They love the cannabis plant and have managed to delegate female cannabis to the coffeeshop boudoir while planting male hemp into the ground by the millions and millions.

The government is us, and we are good and loyal citizens no matter how much we complain. How can we get at the public purse to accomplish this great benefit for one and all? That's a tough question. But hemp is a pretty good natural resource to get behind these days as the chain saw teams march off to the clearcut olympics. First prize: victory. Second prize: death.

Swimming Alone
HempFlax has applied for and received the usual EEC subsidy for growing hemp, and has welcomed a certain amount of assistance from the Dutch government. When Dronkers began HempFlax he was asked if Dutch hemp could swim alone without subsidy. He sighed and said "It would be impossible." Last year he said "It might be possible." This year he says "I'm sure it will be."

Right now the raw hemp stalks costs HempFlax about 25 Dutch cents a pound to produce. If this hemp could be sold at $.40 a pound, cultivation and primary processing for textiles would be worthwhile. As the price for paper pulp steadily increases, and additional breaks for tree-free pulp were at least implied as pending on performance, then hemp will hit like a lumber truck at 4:20.

Staking Claims on Cannabis Island
Hemp for paper is not yet fully groomed for presentation, but the knock at the door is expected at any moment. Making paper  out of hemp is a big project Ñ super big stakes for super big benefits, a worthy prize that continues to fascinate   HempFlax and the hordes of hemp herders shepherding the weed of wonder into safe pastures.

"The funny thing is, the world forgot how to work with hemp. They just stopped... I don't know how many years ago. Everybody just forgot how to do it. The people doing it now are doing it Mickey Mouse... They are doing it the same way they did it 60 years ago," says Dronkers, anxious to see things move along a little faster and better.

It is no secret that the threads of hempen possibilities reach right around the world, but it is HempFlax and a handful of others brave and crazy enough to join them who are digging into their own pockets and hearts now as this new crop is just beginning to show promise. They will hack out a beachhead and stake their claims on a sunny strip on "Cannabis Island" for the next millennium, and what the heck Ñ a few millenniums after that!

On-Site Pulp
HempFlax project manager DeVries claims "It will be only 2 or 3 years before we enter paper making. Small scale processes for this are in place already. An on-site pulp mill is in the planning." He is careful to point out that "This is not a specialty pulp. Any paper making business will be able to use it." He's talking premium tree-free pulp derived entirely from virgin hemp. This is certainly mass for the masses and perhaps the future of planetary paper has already begun.

One Pail at a Time
I learned that there are more pigs than people in Holland. The buildup of pig manure is a huge problem for them and septic manure pile leachate is a nightmare for boggy-soggy Holland.

Hemp is a greedy metabolizer of water soluble manure nitrates and this was put to great advantage at HempFlax to divert more than 60,000 cubic metres of pig manure into their hemp fields where it was lapped up by a zillion hemp plants from the sandy soil.

Now that's composting. That's how to shut down the circus of ruin, one pail of poop at a time. Farmers also report a 5-10% increase in crops on land following hemp, and that alone is a bonus not to be sneezed at.

Set Serious and Go Big
"We need participation" says Dronkers. At this point HempFlax is working with some of the more flexible small Dutch natural resource industries with expertise with different distinctive green plants. HempFlax are using more hemp hurds than fibre at present, but that is to be expected. Ben would love to sell the fibres to the big European automobile manufacturers but notes "They won't show up at our presentations."

He realizes that the automotive people are big time clients and have a lot of time to watch how the material for future zipmobiles ebbs and flows in quality and availability. In the meantime, Ben Dronkers is watching decimal points like lesser men watch girls on television. "You have to come up with a price and a good plan to deliver your materials over time, but it is so difficult at this stage."

I sense that he is frustrated that the hemp infrastructure is not even in place yet, and he cannot proceed until it is in place and running. "Between the hemp farmer and the public is nobody," he says with a silent hiss of anxiety.

The gap is filling up fast with people making things from hemp, even if a lot of them are humble "Mickey Mouse" operations anchored in novelty rather than established as serious businesses. Hemp will soon have to get serious and get ready to go big if this promising new material is ever to get off the ground and into general circulation. Small sucks if there is not enough to go around.

Voting your Dollars
And what are you, gentle reader, going to be doing for the next 10 or 20 years while Ben Dronkers fires up his Star Trek hempworks in a bid to overcome the Klingons of cellulose production? Will you just sniff the winds of change for the stench of roadkill and follow the flies to the free lunch, or will you follow suit and put what little money you have into what's left of your mouth and choose hemp?

When you shop, you are voting with your dollars each time you spend them. If enough consumers decide to abandon their former paper and textile buying habits in favour of hemp, industry will indeed comply to the sincerity of commerce and bring hemp to the stores. Then the circle of ecological responsibility will be complete for the first time in a long time.

There is a part in all of this for even the humblest shopper as well as the most powerful and wealthy producer. The division of society by purchasing power is a fantasy we can no longer afford to subscribe to. The distinction between the "haves" and the "have nots" refers to ones closet space, not the validity of your passage through life in whatever political system you happen to be slogging through. Keep breathing and the gift of life is yours.

By: Dr Alexander Sumach



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