Hemp is versatile and has lots of boosters, but it’s never been more than a niche crop on the Prairies
The hemp industry on the Prairies is slowly making strides and many believe — once again — that the sector is poised to boom.
“We believe there’s a strong case for hemp in the world,” said Andrew Potter, CEO of Blue Sky Hemp Ventures, a company incorporated in Calgary but based in Saskatoon.
Potter, whose background is in the energy sector, is an enthusiastic supporter of hemp.
“Hemp is one of the most nutritious protein sources on the market,” he said. “It’s very attractive in terms of food offerings, and fits in with growing awareness about environmental sustainability. What’s so unique about hemp (is) while it can produce this great crop and cannabidiol (CBD), it also sequesters great amounts of carbon dioxide. If you also look at consumer preferences towards sustainable industrial products, that has increased in a big way.”
In addition to seed and CBD (which is used in a variety of products and is marketed as having health benefits, such as providing relief for anxiety or depression), the fibre can be used in industrial products.
“When you combine these three main themes, there’s a huge role for hemp in the future,” said Potter.
But it’s a future that’s been slow in coming.
Back in 2014, the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance predicted 250,000 acres of hemp would be grown on the Prairies by 2018.
It never came close.
Acreage has bounced around wildly — 41,000 acres in 2018, more than doubling to 91,000 in 2019, plunging to 53,000 last year and estimated at 66,000 this year. And the numbers are even more erratic in Alberta: 6,100 acres in 2018, soaring to 34,600 in 2019, declining sharply to 22,700 last year, and then bouncing back to 36,200 acres this year, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s estimates.
“There are tons of potential for hemp, but it’s not without its complications,” said Potter. “That’s the challenge we’ve set out to solve.”
There are challenges on the agronomic side, too.
When Prairie producers first started growing hemp a quarter of a century ago, they had to deal with varieties that grew up to four metres high and produced a combine-choking amount of biomass.
Even today, there isn’t a lot of information about growing hemp, which leads to many trying it and quitting after a season or two.
“It’s a matter of figuring things out,” said Martin Ekstrand, a farmer from Bow Island who has had hemp in his rotation for the last 10 years. “No one out there knows how to do it completely.
“You have to figure out how to do it yourself, but it’s not as terrible as it is made out to be a lot of the time.”
Ekstrand grows 1,500 acres of hemp on irrigated land, and does dryland cropping as well. (His rotation also includes potatoes, essential oils like dill and mint, and cereals.)
“Hemp is a good rotational crop,” he said. “It’s very good for your ground. It has a nice, deep taproot. It shades the ground so you don’t have many weed problems. It’s a very competitive plant — it chokes out weeds.”
Ekstrand said he’s figured out a system for growing, harvesting (he said he only has a bit of wrapping when combining) and storage (hemp seed can easily spoil if the moisture content is too high).
“It’s a very easy plant to grow, you put it in the ground, you give it the groceries and there’s not much you can do,” he said.
And one of the biggest problems — jumping through a lot of hoops to get a grower’s licence from Health Canada — has pretty much gone away since cannabis was legalized and the government no longer has to worry about producers trying to sneak a few acres of marijuana into their fields.
The most feasible way to grow hemp is on contract, said Ekstrand, who is focused on selling hemp seed.
“The odd person growing without a contract will have a hard time getting rid of their product,” he said.
And while the potential is big, there’s still a lot of uncertainty.
“There’s been a lot of companies coming and going here,” he said. “They haven’t done their homework, so they come in hot and heavy and then fall off.
“I was a little nervous getting into hemp, but it sounds like there are processors coming this way that are ready to process hemp fibre that are already up and running in different parts of the world.”
That’s a key development, he said.
“If we can get someone that will take on the fibre, it will be a lot more attractive plant to grow.”
Manny Deol, executive director of the Alberta Hemp Alliance, also sees great potential for the crop, saying, “hemp can make 50,000 products.”
“Hemp is the most versatile crop,” he said. “You can make everything from food to fuel.”
But the industry is still in its infancy as the supply chain is not yet developed, and there is a shortage of processing capacity for hurd and fibre, he added.
His two-year-old organization is trying to speed that development by connecting growers and buyers for the product, encouraging more processing; and providing grower education.
“We are going to get the word around,” said Deol.
While the supply chain for hemp seed is good, the one for fibre products still has issues, he said.
Blue Sky Hemp Ventures aims to be “a world leader in whole plant utilization for hemp superfoods, CBD and sustainable industrial products” by selling seed, CBD, and fibre.
“Our business model has been built along the model of whole plant utilization,” said Potter. “We take all the grain, we take the flower, which has CBD, we take all the stalk. If we do our jobs right, we can turn that into value-added products.”
Making money off the entire plant is the key to taking the sector to the next level, he said.
“This model is what it takes to bring hemp into a mainstream crop,” said Potter. “From our standpoint, we’re just about to enter into a very large growth phase, which we think will drive the industry,” he said.