Industrial hemp acres on the rise, especially in southern Alberta

Industrial hemp has a huge variety of uses, and is gaining new markets for both seed and fibre

Industrial hemp is moving into the mainstream and Alberta is at the forefront, says a researcher who has been helping to develop the crop for more than a decade.

Upwards of 100,000 acres will be grown in Canada this year, said Jan Slaski, a crop physiologist with Alberta Innovates Technology Futures in Vegreville.

“Processors have contracted about 20,000 acres in southern Alberta,” said Slaski. “Health Canada doesn’t release any acreage information until after harvest, but the feeling among members of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance is that the numbers are strong and getting stronger, especially with a new decortication plant planned for Taber.”

Two Manitoba plants process hemp seed for sale, either de-hulled as hemp hearts or in other forms. Some farmers dehull seed on the farm and sell it privately or at farmers’ markets, but Slaski said it is better to have seed processed at a commercial facility.

“Hemp seed has a relatively high risk of E. coli,” he said. “We’re not sure why, but I think it’s probably birds. They’re attracted to the seeds at the top of the canopy. And, while they’re eating seeds, they poop. I’d hate to see any risk of E. coli problems being linked to hemp, especially while this is such a young and promising industry.”

Many uses

Hemp seed is being added to a huge variety of foods from breakfast cereal to cookies, and processed into a milk substitute, beer, even as flavouring in vodka. Seed is also being cold pressed for its oil, which is used in soaps, skin- and hair-care products as well as in paints and lubricants (often used for food machinery). The protein cake left behind is being sold as a protein supplement for athletes.

It has two types of fibre — long bast fibres on the outside of the stalk and very short ones called hurd fibre from inside the stalk. The two types of fibre are separated, along with huge amounts of dust, in decortication plants, such as that of Alberta Innovates in Vegreville. The separated fibres can then be made into compressed bales (whole stalks don’t compress well) and shipped to users.

From the Manitoba Co-operator website:
Tenth annual ag awareness day looks at hemp

Man in a field of harvested hemp.

Jan Slaski in a harvested hemp field in 2013. After being cut, the crop is left for two to four weeks to rett, a curing process which makes fibre processing easier.
photo: Supplied

Hemp and flax fibres can be processed with the same equipment and sold for some of the same uses, although only hemp has hurd fibre. Hurd is used as an erosion control material on exposed land slopes and as garden mulch, or for animal bedding. It can be mixed with lime as a hempcrete, a light building material. It provides excellent sound and heat insulation but is vapour permeable. Hurd can also be used in low-grade paper.

The long bast fibres can be formed into mats as a framework for biocomposites. Lightweight plastics used for high-end vehicle interiors, truck canopies made in Alberta, and Versatile tractor hoods, cabs and mudguards. Textiles including hemp fibre are attracting buyers as they are durable and natural, and more comfortable than synthetic blends.

It all adds up to an exciting future, said Slaski.

“We don’t really have the agronomics entirely worked out yet,” he says. “But farmers tell me they’re growing hemp because they’re making money. Some of it is grown organically, but we’re going to work with Farming Smarter on agronomics for conventionally grown industrial hemp.”

Hemp plants are naturally female or male, and the latter wither away after shedding their pollen. However, new varieties such as Alberta Innovates’ “Silesia” combine male and female traits in each plant, so every one produces seed and pollen and contributes to crop yield. Breeders are working to develop lines that are well adapted for Alberta conditions with increased biomass and less lignin in the fibre (to make processing easier).

Hemp is daylight sensitive. In northern Alberta, vegetative growth continues until late in the growing season, so crops as far north as LaCrete on the N.W.T. border are grown for fibre. In the south, seed sets earlier and is the salable harvest. Growers use conventional harvest equipment, but Slaski predicts dedicated machinery will develop as the industry grows.

With sufficient heat and moisture, plants can grow 20 centimetres a day and sequester around a quarter of a tonne of carbon dioxide per acre per year. Hemp needs a well-aerated seedbed for good germination and emergence, but once seedlings are started they close the canopy quickly and choke out most annual weeds.

It also has a very deep tap root that allows the plant to remediate contaminated sites, including at Chernobyl.

Hemp was one of the first crops cultivated by humans because it had so many uses. Its nutritious seed has a high-value protein (including all 23 amino acids), its oil is edible and can be used in lamps, and its fibre could be made into clothing and shelter. Across central Asia, traces of hemp have been found at neolithic sites where farming and settlement began. Later, it was used to make rope and sails, and was mixed with lime as a building material. But as alternative materials were developed, its use dropped and it was banned in 1938 because its psychoactive cousin was becoming a popular drug. However, industrial hemp contains minuscule amounts of THC and in 1998, Health Canada made it a regulated crop — with growers needing a licence to produce it.

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