As the Canadian hemp industry continues to expand and mature, the demand for hemp foods, not just in North America, but worldwide, is fueling more hemp acres across Manitoba and other areas of Western Canada, and is providing good economic returns for growers.
“The returns per acre on hemp are better than just about any commonly grown grain crop out there,” says Clarence Shwaluk, director of farm operations for Fresh Hemp Foods in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “Average yields have increased significantly over the last few years, and experienced growers tend to get better consistency and higher levels of performance. It’s not uncommon to hear of yields of 1,000 pounds per acre clean on non-irrigated lands in Manitoba and across the Prairies. Growers are getting more familiar with the crops and more growers are willing to take on the additional risk of a crop that is a little bit different to produce. We have high standards as far as quality, but the reward is definitely there for hemp.”
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There has also been consolidation in the food hemp industry as Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods and Hemp Oil Canada merged last December to create Fresh Hemp Foods. “We’ve had increased throughput at our facilities, and we’re looking for more acres in 2017,” says Shwaluk. ”Hemp food is becoming big not only locally, but Canada is becoming a global leader when it comes to hemp food production.”
Establishing quality benchmarks
Anticipating that hemp could become a more common crop, the industry is being proactive in trying to establish quality benchmarks to ensure the reputation of Canada’s high quality hemp products is maintained.
“We don’t have industry-wide standards as to what makes a good hulling grade or crushing grade hempseed,” says Shwaluk. The Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance is working within the industry to try and establish quality benchmarks. “We make every effort to ensure that we have the best quality standards and our customers get the best quality products. Our quality systems are second to none and we want to make sure we maintain that reputation not only for us as a business, but for Canadian hemp around the globe. Industry-wide quality standards will help our Canadian industry to maintain consistency of product for our customers. Canada has a strong reputation for having high grain production standards and we want that same recognition for our hemp food products.”
With many initial hemp varieties in Canada, which were imported from the hemp fibre industry, residue management was always a concern, but newer, shorter varieties are available, which produce a lot less residue and make it easier for growers to harvest.
“Managing residue is becoming less and less of a concern because of these new varieties and because of new technologies,” says Shwaluk. “Most of today’s modern combines don’t have a whole lot of trouble with harvesting hemp.”
Most hemp crops are straight combined in Manitoba. A draper header is preferred because it gives a more even feed into the feeder house. Most modern single rotor or conventional combines work well, but twin-rotor combines may have a tendency to wrap up inside. Sharp cutter bars are recommended so that the fibre isn’t pulled or torn. “Maintaining an even flow and harvesting at the right height, so you’re not taking too much fibre in the combine, all those things help,” says Shwaluk.
Quality is the main focus of hemp production for oil and food products, and is the reason that Shwaluk talks with growers to ensure they have the right equipment and management in place to produce a high quality crop. “Our international markets have high quality demands and we work with growers right from the initial steps to focus on quality and make sure their crop is going to be suitable for our markets,” says Shwaluk. “That includes having good storage facilities and ideally a grain dryer, because often there is a drying step involved. This is what we consider to be one of the best practices to reduce the risk of spoilage in the bin and reduce the risk of the crop not making food grade quality.”
With no public breeding program for hemp varieties, the onus is on food companies or hemp breeders to support growers by developing hemp varieties and providing sound agronomic advice — based on research — so growers have tangible agronomic and economic incentives to add hemp to their rotation.
Fresh Hemp Foods has its own breeding program which has developed three hemp varieties to date that provide the agronomic traits that are important to growers as well as the characteristics that are beneficial for food production. The company continues to do small plot research and field demonstration trials to provide the best agronomic advice for growers in different areas across Western Canada. “Our growers and their production systems are quite diverse, from irrigation in southern Alberta, up to northeastern Saskatchewan, and all across Manitoba, so we need to know how the hemp crop responds, and some of the subtle things that we can do to manage the crop in different areas,” says Shwaluk. “We want to help our growers get better yields and good quality crops are also efficient for the supply chain,” he adds.
However, niche products always carry a certain amount of market risk. Some hemp producers were frustrated when they had to hold onto their hemp crops longer than expected because of over production in the last couple of growing seasons. It’s an issue processors are working hard to prevent from happening in the future. “All of the production we have coming to our facilities is contracted so we can manage our production inflows, and manage our acres because we don’t want to see surpluses on the market,” says Shwaluk. “We’ve gone through some of that and we prefer to be more hands-on in the management on how much is produced so that we can make sure that we can process it.”
Shwaluk predicts strong growth in the North American and international hemp food market over the next couple of years. “Hemp is a long-term, sustainable crop and adding new crops into a rotation from an agronomic perspective is a good for our production systems,” says Shwaluk. “We’re seeing that all across farming today, where producers are looking for new crops to add to rotations, adopting like cover crops, and using different methods of production to maintain healthy soils and a healthy growing environment. Adding new crops like hemp to rotations adds diversity, it reduces the pressure of disease, and also gives some good, economic diversity to the farm.”