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Few crops as versatile as hemp

With changes in combine technology, simpler regulations and strong prices and demand, there may be a place for hemp on your farm


When it comes to crop rotations hemp is worth considering, especially as prices and demand for hemp seed have strengthened over the past few years.

“Hemp is great in the rotation, especially if growers are planting canola and wheat,” says Chris Dzisiak, a hemp grower from the Dauphin area of Manitoba and President of the Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers Co-operative (PIHG). “We grow it in a four-year rotation of canola, wheat, a pulse crop and then hemp. It has flexibility as to when it can be sown and still make you a good return. I planted hemp in 2004 on July 4th due to excess spring moisture and I still got 450 pounds per acre.”

Average yields in Manitoba are 460 to 470 pounds of clean hemp seed per acre according to Manitoba Agricultural Service Corporation (MASC) harvest reports.

Hemp: the basics

Hemp has many agronomic benefits including low input requirements. Hemp doesn’t require a lot of extra nitrogen and most growers fertilize it like wheat. It can also be a good scavenger of nutrients that are already present in the soil on manured or heavily fertilized land, where a significant amount of nitrogen can leach down several feet into the soil profile.

Hemp has a deep root system that can extend seven or eight feet into the soil and make use of any nitrogen present at that level. Deep roots also make it a good crop for dry conditions because it can access subsoil moisture. Hemp is vulnerable to sclerotinia but stands up to insects quite well, and makes a good follow-on crop to potatoes, cereals and after an alfalfa break-up.

Hemp must be grown under contract and it’s important to make sure that the contract is fair to the grower. “It should be comparative to the price of other grains being produced like canola or wheat,” says Dzisiak. PIHG growers currently are getting 90 cents per pound, which Dzisiak says is a reasonable minimum price.

Since Health Canada introduced a licensing process in 1998 to allow farmers to grow hemp, there has been a steadily increasing market demand for hemp grains. Hemp production has increased by around 20 per cent per year over the past decade, with 30,000 acres planted in Canada last year and around 52,000 acres in 2012, reflecting strong demand for hemp-seed food products among health conscious consumers.

“Demand for the grain is going to continue to grow,” says Keith Watson, Crop Diversification Specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI). “Society has a lot of interest in foods that contain essential fatty acids and there’s not many foods that have a balanced ratio of Omega 3 and 6, as hemp does. I think hemp has the potential to take more market share in this area.”

The primary use for hemp grain is still within the food industry. There are four hemp grain processors in Manitoba at Winnipeg, Ste. Agathe, MacGregor and Rossendale, and other major processors in British Columbia and Alberta. Highly nutritious hemp seed oil is used in salad dressings, cookies, pasta and health supplements. In tests conducted by the U.S. National Institute of Health in 1999, hemp oil reduced the risk of certain types of cancers, atherosclerosis and heart attack.

Hempseed oil is used in cosmetic products and has potential for other industrial applications such as inks, paints and fuel. Hempseed meal has even been used to brew speciality hemp beers.

Growing Hemp

Hemp has been under regulation in Canada since the early Narcotics Act in 1938 because it contains very low levels of THC — a psychoactive drug found in much larger quantities in marijuana. Although the regulations haven’t changed since 1998, the process has been streamlined and simplified.

Farmers must grow only certified seed and complete some paperwork requirements from Health Canada. There is a $10 cost for a standard criminal record check, which can now be submitted with the paperwork instead of having to make a special trip to the local RCMP office as in the past.

The Dauphin-Parkland area is a major hemp growing region. PIHG in association with MAFRI has conducted hemp variety trials in the area for several years. Data from these trials including evaluation of seed treatments, seeding times, plant population studies and variety performance are published annually.

Hemp is very competitive with weeds, requiring a pre-season burn off with glyphosate or tillage to allow it to become established. After the first few weeks of growth hemp can grow three to four inches per day in peak season.

But it shouldn’t be seeded too early. “If you are growing it for grain you don’t want to plant it May 1, even if the soil is warm because you don’t want 11 feet high hemp to try and harvest,” says Dzisiak. “If you plant it at the end of May or beginning of June it only gets five to eight feet high.”

Farmers in the past had to adapt equipment to harvest hemp. Over the past few years more aggressive combines like 8000 and 9000 Case IH and John Deere rotary combines have evolved systems to prevent the tough hemp fibres wrapping themselves around the chains and front bearings. Proper shielding is still needed on the drive axles, and fire-extinguishers are mandatory in case sparks contact the hemp seeds’ fine dust when harvesting.

It seems there are no established guidelines for processors except to say that clean, pure and dry hemp seed that is free of mould creates better food-grade products. Breeding programs at the Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers have developed varieties that take into account the needs of processors, like Dolores, a variety that has a large seed size, a great flavour, de-hulls easily and gives a high yield.

Hemp fibre

Most of the varieties that have been developed in Canada are dual purpose for grain or fibre, and it’s felt by many in the industry that hemp’s biggest potential lies in the development of hemp fibre processing. Currently a private investor from China is working to establish a hemp fibre processing facility in Gilbert Plains to supply Chinese textile mills that require hemp fibre as a raw ingredient.

Other untapped markets for hemp fibre products include composites in buses and even commercial aircraft with major players like Boeing currently investigating the unique properties of lightweight, but tough hemp fibres. Hemp houses are starting to pop up around the world and Hemp Technologies of the U.S. is working with Manitoba Housing and Community Development to explore the possibility of building an experimental hemp house in Winnipeg.

There is a potential use for every part of the hemp plant. Smaller seeds that are cleaned out before sending to the processors can be sold as bird feed. Even the screenings, which are currently discarded, are being researched as a possible animal feed supplement.

It seems the possibilities for products made from hemp are pretty much endless but it’s definitely a chicken and egg situation in terms of developing localized processing capabilities that can in turn create the demand to sustain them and make it an attractive crop for western Canadian farmers to grow. “The first step is to create a domestic supply of hemp fibre to supply the markets that already exist and then make it available for businesses to develop other products as well,” says Watson.

“Hemp is a crop that we can grow readily in Western Canada and can be profitable for farmers,” says Dzisiak. †

About the author

Contributor

Angela Lovell

Angela Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, Manitoba. Visit her website at http://alovell.ca or follow her on Twitter @angelalovell10.

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