In 2013, over 66,000 acres were licensed to cultivate hemp, a nearly 10-fold increase from 2003, according to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance.
“It’s a crop that there’s growing interest in it. Especially as canola’s starting to slump so bad,” says Harry Brook, crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.
But farmers can’t throw a little hemp in the rotation last minute. “If you’re planning to grow any hemp at all, you need to get your ducks in a row early,” says Brook.
Before seeding, farmers also need to know how to manage, harvest, and sell the crop, says Brook. “So you’ve got to do a lot of homework first.”
Minimizing hemp harvest problems starts with choosing the right variety with the right height, says Kevin Friesen. Friesen is a certified seed grower, partner in Hemp Genetics International and seed production manager with Hemp Oil Canada.
Typically, five feet is the height to aim for, says Friesen. Farmers should look at whether hemp varieties are suited to their locations, machinery and drying capacity, he adds.
“And there isn’t any single variety which is the be all and end all for all locations. And that’s where I think most of the mistakes are made when farmers start out. They may not be getting the right advice. They may not be getting the right selections of hemp to grow, or the right varieties,” says Friesen.
Health Canada has a long list of approved hemp cultivars, but there are only a few commonly grown varieties, says Friesen.
Hemp is a controlled product, so farmers need to file for a licence months before growing it. Licences are issued for the calendar year, but Health Canada starts accepting applications in November, Brook says. Friesen says farmers usually start filling out paper work in the New Year.
“It’s not a difficult application but the processing time is typically about two months,” says Friesen.
The vast majority of hemp grown in Alberta these days is harvested for seed, rather than fibre, Brook explains. He says there’s “good money” in the seed, once it’s harvested. The seed is used for health food products, such as hemp hearts and hemp oil, and much of it flows into the U.S.
“There are producers who have been growing it for a number of years in southern Alberta. And it compares very favourably even to hybrid canola, which pays very well,” says Brook.
Both Brook and Friesen say most hemp is grown under contract.
Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods and Hemp Oil Canada both offer seed and production contracts. Farmer Direct Co-op also contracts organic hemp.
Because hemp is a controlled substance, farmers need to buy certified seed. Farmers should hold on to certified seed tags because they’ll need to show them to inspectors, if requested.
Thousand kernel weights (TKW) range from 11 grams to 19 grams, says Friesen. Seeding rates range from 20 to 30 pounds per acre, he says. Seeding depth is the same as canola, although the larger seeds can be seeded a little deeper, says Friesen.
Friesen suggests seeding hemp into medium textured, well-drained soil. The crop doesn’t like wet feet, so heavy soils aren’t the best choice, especially in wet years. It can do well on lighter soils if there’s plenty of rain, “but otherwise they tend to not have the fertility to support” the crop, he says.
No herbicides are registered for industrial hemp right now, though Friesen says the minor use program is evaluating products. The crop isn’t competitive when it first emerges, Brook says, so a pre-seed burn-off is recommended. Farmers should aim for 200 to 250 plants per square metre, he adds. (Note: This only applies to hemp grown for fibre. Farmers growing for grain should aim for 75 to 90 plants per metre squared)
Each hemp variety grows differently, depending on latitude, Friesen says. But plant stand affects morphology, too. A higher plant population concentrates seed set at the plants’ tops. Lower plant populations mean more branching and seed sets from the bottom up.
Good weed control and proper plant density create a uniform field, says Friesen. “That means you can set your combine so you can take in a minimum amount of fibre.”
Hemp is “a fairly heavy feeder” and fertility needs are similar to canola, Friesen says, but with higher nitrogen requirements. “And often your fertilizer can be your herbicide because putting on a sufficient amount of fertility makes the crop very vigorous.”
“There’s a trick to harvesting, too. You have to have a combine and a fire truck,” says Brook. Hemp fibre tends to wind around moving objects during combining, Brook explains.
But if farmers hit the right harvest windows for the variety and height, most modern combines won’t have many issues, says Friesen.
Most Saskatchewan farmers straight cut hemp, says Friesen. “And they’ll straight cut anywhere between 12 to 20 per cent seed moisture. And then the grain needs to be dried.”
Friesen says hemp can be stored for two or three years at eight or nine per cent moisture. Brook says it should be dried to 10 or 12 per cent to prevent mold and bacterial growth during storage.
The highest recorded yield topped 2,000 lbs. per acre, according to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance’s website, with an average yield hitting somewhere between 600 lbs. to 800 lbs. per acre (Note: Friesen considers anything under 1000 pounds per acre a crop failure. He’s seen yields as high as 2,800 lbs. per acre (including dockage) in 2014).
Ultimately, success in growing hemp comes down to farmers getting “the right agronomic information for their area,” says Friesen.