A $30-million hemp fibre-processing facility is set to open in southern Alberta this fall, but it won’t — at least for now — be sourcing hemp from Canada.
“I’ll be moving into a facility in about two months, and we’ll be operational from there,” said Brett Boag, chief executive officer of Cylab International.
“But I’ll be bringing my fibre, at that point, in from overseas.”
Boag built his company eight years ago in China, where tall hemp varieties thrive and workers separate the fibrous stalk from the internal hurd (the soft part of the stem) by hand.
He knew the labour situation would be different here, but was expecting hemp fibre “would be abundantly available,” he said.
But as it turns out, the varieties of hemp currently grown in the province fall short on a couple of fronts — fibre strength and length — and the two characteristics go hand in hand.
“It’s a really, really good material if you get long-fibre format, and that’s what we’re looking for — a longer fibre format than the standard 70- to 80-millimetre length. We’re looking for 200 to 300 millimetre.”
Fibre strength is critical, said Boag. Some companies are even testing hemp as an alternative to Kevlar in bulletproof vests.
“These systems rely on the strength hemp offers and the ability of hemp to resist impact, which is what Kevlar is all about,” he said.
“But Kevlar is $80 a square metre. This material is a couple of dollars, and yet it’s probably got 80 per cent the performance of Kevlar.”
Although there’s been a lot of interest in hemp, and an increasing number of acres in southern Alberta, long-fibre varieties would perform best in the north, said Boag.
- More on “hemp” from the Alberta Farmer Express: Industrial hemp acres on the rise, especially in southern Alberta
“This stuff grows on sunlight. You’ve got longer days of sunlight up there,” he said. “In my mind, this area (in central Alberta) and farther north is the growing area for a good-quality fibrous hemp.”
That’s good news for central Alberta hemp grower Todd Bystrom, who currently burns his hemp fibre.
“I would consider any kind of hemp straw right now a cost,” he said. “That’s actually a cost against growing it. Any time you can turn a cost into a revenue, that makes it a better calculation.”
Bystrom has been growing hemp on his farm near Sylvan Lake for the past three years, primarily as seed and for the food market.
“When you look at hemp as a farmer, you’ve got to have a reason to grow it. The No. 1 reason for me is it’s worth more money.”
A hemp fibre-processing facility would allow producers like Bystrom to sell the whole plant, while making it easier to manage post-harvest straw.
“It would be a good thing because you have to remove this straw to be able to seed into it next year,” he said.
The Cylab facility could see a big jump in hemp acreage, which is roughly half of what that plant can handle.
“We would be requiring within about two years from now about 41,000 acres of hemp — not for the seed, not for anything other than the stalk and the internal hurd,” said Boag.
In order to get hemp from the field into a material that companies like Cylab can manufacture, the fibre must first be separated from the internal hurd — ideally in a location close to where the crop is grown in order to maintain the fibre strength.
“To turn this product here in Canada into a product that I can use, you need decortication,” said Boag.
The province funded a decortication pilot plant in Vegreville to grow the potential market for hemp in the province, said Lori-Jo Graham, biomaterials program lead with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.
“We invested in that multimillion-dollar project in 2009,” she said. “It’s North America’s largest fractionation facility.”
In the past five years, she’s seen a “real resurgence in the market.”
“We’re getting a lot of processors and manufacturers coming here and using the facility for research,” said Graham.
“We’re trying to establish Alberta and Canada as a centre of excellence for hemp, and it really sets Alberta apart from other places.”