Hemp growers making a big difference half a world away

Helping farmers in East Africa learn how to make their land more productive is why La Crete grower James Thiessen signed up for the 
Two Acre Challenge.
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James Thiessen has been growing hemp for eight years, but this past year he did something different — gave part of his harvest away.

The organic hemp grower from La Crete was approached by Hemp Production Services to join the Two Acre Challenge and was happy to participate.

“I like it because Hemp Production Services has control over where the money is used,” said Thiessen. “The (Foodgrains Bank and its partners) concentrate primarily on teaching people to feed themselves, and teaching people to use the land they have and how to grow things.”

About half a dozen growers participated in the Two Acre Challenge, in which each donated acre receives a matching donation from Saskatoon-based Hemp Production Services, a wholesaler and exporter of hemp food products.

“We want to partner with our growers who contract hemp with us and work together with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank to respond to food insecurity issues around the world,” said Alden Braul, the company’s organic product specialist.

The project’s name not only refers to the matching donation, but also to the fact that the majority of smallholder farmers around the world rely on two acres for their food security.

If a grower gets a 1,000-pound crop per acre, they would receive about $1.30 a pound, said Braul. Conventional growers would make about 60 cents a pound, but they would have a higher yield of about 2,000 pounds per acre.

“We would match that and give it to the Foodgrains Bank, and it would likely get a match there as well from the Canadian government,” said Braul.

Proceeds will help small-scale farmers in East Africa who are struggling to grow enough food for their families adopt conservation agriculture measures.

Although his situation is much different, Thiessen, who grows mostly oats along with about 300 acres of hemp annually, knows the value of adopting farming techniques focused on the longer term.

“(Hemp) is a heavier feeder so you need to make sure the nutrients are there, primarily nitrogen — you need a good cover crop prior to growing hemp,” he said. “You put a heavy legume plot on, and then follow it the next year with hemp.”

Thiessen grows hemp because it has higher returns than cereals, but he also finds it has agronomic benefits.

“It does seem to do good things for the land,” he said. “I’ve been monitoring my soil samples and the soil has seemed to improve.”

Summer days are long in the Peace, which actually makes growing hemp more of a challenge.

“Because it is photosensitive, hemp has a tendency to grow a bit taller here than it does down south. We end up having to deal with a lot more plant matter. Just because a plant is big, it doesn’t mean that it will produce seed. They can be pretty tall. I’ve had stuff as high as 11 feet.”

In East Africa, of course, farmers face a whole different set of challenges.

The Foodgrains Bank is in the midst of a five-year project to teach 50,000 growers how to practise conservation agriculture. Because the soil is severely degraded, their small plots have poor yields, and are subject to erosion when it rains and crop failures when moisture is scarce. Conservation agriculture is focused on three practices: minimal soil disturbance through reduced or no tillage; permanent organic soil cover using mulches; and diversified crop rotations (including intercropping with legumes). More than 21,000 farmers in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia are now using these techniques, and reporting increased yields and saying they can now feed their families.

That’s something Thiessen wants to see more of.

“It’s a crying shame that people are hungry due to a lack of education,” he said.

– With files from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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