Russ Crawford likes to compare hemp with canola 40 years ago — small acreage, and uncertain markets. “Hemp provides a unique opportunity because it has been a marginalized and an unrealized crop. There’s tremendous potential to capture,” said Russ Crawford, vice-president of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance.
“Because it’s so small, it’s hard to get people’s attention and it’s hard to get people talking about hemp,” said Crawford. “Because you’re small, you might have a very small voice. But nonetheless, the opportunities are significant.”
He notes that the hemp market in Canada has developed erratically. Farmers get signals to grow, then they grow too much and cut back, resulting in an erratic pattern of production and consumption.
Crawford said the hemp industry looks to canola as a role model and hopes the industry can follow a similar path.
“This is a case of what comes first. Do you grow hemp and then hope that someone will build a plant that will process your product, whether it’s food or fibre? Or do you look to someone to invest and build that facility and roll the dice that farmers are going to grow the crop and you’ll be able to sustain that industry and that business?” he said. The industry will need to work collaboratively to grow for everyone’s benefit.
Crawford said there is opportunity to create a hemp value chain by bringing together growers, processors and consumers, and attracting investment will move the industry forward. Investors need a consistent supply and need to know that there will be available crop. The government also needs to create a favourable investment climate, and people need to have a positive attitude and a strong voice in support of the industry.
Trevor Kloek, program lead at the Alberta Biomaterials Development Centre, said Alberta cannot satisfy demand alone and there’s a large potential latent demand for the crop.
“Some of the markets we’re addressing right now who are seriously interested will require about 300 tons of straw to meet one company’s requirement. That’s not something one province can do, it’s something Western Canada has to do,” he said.
Kloek said there is latent capacity in growing, as well as latent, untested demand. He said the crop has great potential but lacks critical mass. “I think we need to produce what the customer wants and not what we have. That’s a fundamental law of how we’re going to succeed here,” he said.