Industrial hemp has been legal to grow in Canada since 1998. Since this time, the industry has grown in the Prairies to over 60,000 acres in 2014.
There are two products from hemp: fibre and grain. As of yet, no primary processing facilities for industrial hemp are available in Canada (although one is in development near Lethbridge, Alberta). This in spite of strong interest from several industries in Canada that are looking to use hemp fibre in processing of materials like fibre board, fibreglass, textiles, paper, oil-spill clean-up kits, car panels etc. The Alberta government in particular has been supportive of these industries.
The main product from industrial hemp in Canada today is the grain. The grain is used both as a dehulled seed (e.g. for breakfast cereals and bars), and is pressed into an oil, like flax seed. While the demand for hemp is largely organic, supply of organic is only around 15-20% of total supply. Despite efforts to increase organic hemp production, the interest lies primarily with non-organic growers. This is largely due to the harvesting of the grain, which requires a powerful combine. As organic growers tend to have smaller and older equipment, they have considerable difficulty getting the crop off.
Hemp production has several nuances:
- Producers are required to get a licence and fields are inspected close to harvest (expect your fields to get busy if you live close to urban areas!)
- Varieties are still few and mostly from other countries like Finland, but there is some crop development and variety testing happening in Canada
- Seed is hard to find and very expensive, but as more growers become involved, more seed will become available
- There are no registered in-crop pesticides. While pesticides should be available soon (in the minor-use category), disease issues are not a huge issue yet, and the crop grows vigorously, so is competitive with weeds
- As there are no fibre processors, dealing with the straw can be an issue (like with flax). Fibre processing should be available in 2015 or 2016 in Southern Alberta (which may be too far to truck straw for some producers)
- Most varieties are dioecious, so only half the plants growing will produce seed, the males simply die off early
- Harvesting requires a larger combine, and in dry, windy climates is done with higher moisture (15%) to prevent early shattering
- More post-harvest handling is required to dry-down the seed
- Cleaning specifications are high (99.8%) and cleaning plants must be certified with the hemp buyer (check with your cleaner first!), which can lead to significant losses over total crop harvest
Things to consider if growing hemp organically:
- Hemp is a high-demand crop, so ensure there is high fertility (grown after a plowdown)
- A large, powerful combine is required to harvest hemp effectively
- Hemp is frost-tolerant, so late-seeding is less of an issue
For more information on hemp production:
- Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance is holding a conference in Winnipeg November 17-19 and will feature talks on hemp production including live demonstrations
- Manitoba Harvest and Hemp Oil Canada are the primary markets for the grain
- News article from field day Lethbridge, Alberta in 2014
- Alberta Innovates Technology Futures has several ongoing research projects on hemp (contact Jan Slaski)
- The Crop Diversification Centre North in Edmonton has been researching hemp production for several years (contact Kwesi Ampong-Nyarko)