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Hemp? Is that even legal?

Hemp is an interesting crop to be involved in,” says Kent Oatway, a farmer on the north-west edge of Winnipeg, Manitoba. “It’s something new and challenging.”

Industrial hemp, Cannabis Sativa, is one of the oldest cultivated plants in history. Most people are aware of other uses of this plant as a recreational drug, but hemp is produced from a type of Cannabis Sativa specifically bred to yield long fibres. Hemp was used for thousands of years for rope, canvas, paper, and clothing until other textiles were discovered.

In 1998 hemp was legalized in Canada, and commercial cultivation became much easier and straightforward. A license is required from Health Canada and farmers must complete annual criminal checks. Despite some necessary paperwork, industrial hemp can still be an attractive option for farmers to consider as part of their rotations.

“Licensing is straight-forward, but it is just more paperwork that has to be completed,” said Oatway. He also said that depending on the variety you choose to grow, you may have to submit the results of a THC test to Health Canada. THC is tetrahydrocannabinol, the ingredient which gives people a “high” when they smoke cannabis or “weed.” Most cultivated industrial varieties of hemp have less than 0.3 per cent THC and have no physical or physiological effects.

Agronomics

Industrial hemp is grown across the Prairies and into Ontario. It’s seeded mid-May to early June and is very frost resistant. It requires about 110 days to maturity. The seeding rate is 25 to 30 pounds per acre, at a depth of one half to one inch. No special seeding equipment is required.

The key to getting hemp off to a good start is to seed into a clean field that is pre-tilled or sprayed, and into a firm and uniform seedbed.

“This is the key management issue,” says Oatway. “We seed our hemp on our cleanest, highest and best-drained land. Hemp does not like wet feet.” Once emerged, industrial hemp is a very competitive crop as it creates a thick canopy that chokes out weeds. This is a very important characteristic considering there are no herbicides registered for use on industrial hemp.

“Give this crop heat, and you’ll see it jump out of the ground really fast,” says Oatway. The plant will reach five or six feet in height, but lodging is not an issue.

Industrial hemp is usually straight combined using a draper header. In the past, it was difficult to thresh, but with new shorter varieties and better combine technologies, that is no longer such an issue. “The biggest challenge harvesting hemp is because of the long, very strong fibers, it wraps itself inside the machine,” explains Oatway. The main consideration in growing industrial hemp is the need to have a dryer. Industrial hemp is harvested at about 20 per cent moisture content for ease of handling, and the seed needs to be dried down to nine per cent for storage.

“This is more work, of course, and more expense, but we have our own dryer,” says Oatway. “You have to balance that against the higher seed costs but almost zero chemical costs.”

The seed itself resembles a very small nut, not unlike a small, round buckwheat seed.

Contracting

“I would certainly advise farmers not to grow industrial hemp unless they have a contract,” says Tom Greaves of Manitoba Harvest. Manitoba Harvest is the largest, vertically integrated hemp food manufacturer in Canada. (Find more information at www.manitobaharvest.com.)

Hemp Oil Canada (www.helpoilcan.com) is another marketing option for farmers. Hemp is used to make a range of healthy foods including oils, butters, milks and protein powders. It is gaining a reputation as a new, innovative healthy ingredient very quickly.

Dale Risula is the Saskatchewan provincial specialist for special crops and according to him hemp acres are declining in the province. “I think it’s mostly due to the regulations farmers have to adhere to, but also, hemp like many special crops is susceptible to declining acres when the economics of crops like durum and canola look good. Those crops are an easy, attractive option for farmers and the special crops take a bit of a hit.” †

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