Growing Organic Hemp in Canada

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.

Hemp is a strong material, ideal for fibre-glass production (here for production of a skateboard)

Hemp is a strong material, ideal for fibre-glass production (here for production of a skateboard)

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.

Kwesi in Field of hempHemp 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:

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The organic market is open in Japan!

Big news for Canadian organic companies this week. The Canadian Organic Trade Association has been working long and hard on this, and it has finally come through: equivalency with Japan, the largest Asian market! This means products certified organic in Canada will be accepted into Japan without going through a complicated, second round of certification (the JAS standard).

From the Market Wired Blog (link):

Organic Sector Praises Canada-Japan Deal
OTTAWA, ON–(Marketwired – September 23, 2014) – After intensive discussions between the Japan Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Japan and Canada have agreed on an equivalency in organic products. An in-depth review and on-site audit of each other’s rules for organic production concluded that the organic standards and enforcement regimes of Japan and Canada meet the same objectives, allowing organic products to be sold in both countries.
The exchange of letters between Canada and Japan took place on September 16, 2014. Today, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Gerry Ritz formally announced the arrangement.
“The Japan Agricultural Standard (JAS) for organic products are very strict: this recognition of Canada’s organic system reaffirms that Canada’s organic standards are among the most-recognized and widely respected in the world,” said Matthew Holmes, Executive Director of the Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA).
The United States, European Union, Switzerland and Costa Rica formally recognize Canada’s organic standards. With Japan, these markets equal 95% of the world’s $64 billion in annual organic sales.
“This is exciting and long-awaited news for Canada’s organic sector,” Holmes noted, “Japan is the largest organic market in Asia and demand is very high for the many quality organic products that Canada supplies, particularly maple syrup, specialty-roasted coffee, soybeans, and cereal grains. The government’s leadership has ensured our producers enjoy privileged market access, while saving Canadian organic farms and businesses the needless costs of additional inspections and redundant certification.”
Canadian organic products that can be exported to Japan include plant and plant-based products that are JAS eligible, as well as animal products and animal-based processed products outside the JAS system’s scope. The respective countries’ organic logos will be authorized for use in each other’s markets.
The Canada Organic Trade Association is the membership-based association for the organic sector in Canada, representing growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers’ associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others in the organic value chain. COTA’s mission is to promote and protect the growth of organic trade to benefit the environment, farmers, the public and the economy.
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Bill C-18 delayed

The bill that will bring in UPOV ’91 to Canada has reached its second reading in the house, but will be delayed until the Fall, when Parliament resumes. This will leave more time for farmers and the public to weight the consequences of more stringent seed protection from seed companies in the face of drastic public cutbacks over public funding to crop development and strong push towards privatization of seed.

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Open Source Seed


A group of scientists, seed growers and breeders have launched a new campaign in an effort to keep seeds in the hands of farmers. The new website was launched with much fanfare, including an interview on CBC radio’s As It Happens.

The goal of the initiative is to prevent genetic resources from becoming private property. By declaring seeds as “open source”, the group hopes to prevent a company from making the seed illegal to save, propagate and share. In much the same way as the open source software movement has generated a movement to keep individual efforts to improve software, farmers and breeders are doing the same with seed: genetic resources open for sharing removes barriers on developing new genetic material and eventually, new plant varieties.

The movement is in the wake of a frightening number of cases of farmers being sued by large seed companies for allegedly violating licensing agreements by saving seed grown on their farm and replanting it. This has led to many farmers being concerned about saving seed, and from large seed companies patenting genes that are in the seeds they already grow, and therefore violating patent laws.

Breeders are also seeing the impact. Increasingly, plant breeders are complaining that restrictions around the free exchange of genetic material amongst themselves (i.e. breeders that work in universities or private companies) make it difficult to move new varieties forward. This is largely driven by the increasing demand to make more income from seed breeding, but if new varieties are becoming bottle-necked by the regulations set out to bring in revenue, new varieties will be harder to release without infringing on patents.

So far the initiative consists simply putting a statement on seed packages that reads:

This Open Source Seed pledge is intended to ensure your freedom to use the seed contained herein in any way you choose, and to make sure those freedoms are enjoyed by all subsequent users. By opening this packet, you pledge that you will not restrict others’ use of these seeds and their derivatives by patents, licenses, or any other means. You pledge that if you transfer these seeds or their derivatives they will also be accompanied by this pledge.

Read the CBC story here

Read the NPR story here

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GE Alfalfa release delayed

Forage Genetics International, the licence-holder of GE alfalfa that was approved for registration in Canada last year, has delayed its Canadian release for another year. Read the story in the Western Producer here.

This news comes in the wake of a the Canadian Seed Trade Association’s plan to establish coexistence with GE and non-GE alfalfa. The proposed plan for coexistence not only fell short of guaranteeing GE contamination, but downplayed scientific evidence and ignored a significant voice of dissent to GE alfalfa. To read an excellent commentary on the document, visit this site. The notes from the meeting organized by the CSTA are also very telling of the tone: lost markets with the release of this new technology will severely impact Canadian alfalfa growers.

It is also in the wake of motion passed by the Union de Producteurs Agricole (UPA), one of the major farm groups in Quebec prohibiting the marketing of GE Alfalfa. Diary producers in Quebec have also been strongly opposed to its release.

Clearly there is very little support for the introduction of GE alfalfa in Canada, as it would negatively affect markets across a wide spectrum of agricultural sectors, including dairy, seed, organics and beef. Alfalfa is a widely used crop that has become fundamental to many farming operations for its deep taproot, significant nitrogen-fixing capacity, excellent feed value and perennial persistence.

Alfalfa seed growers in the US have been increasingly concerned about losing markets due to GE contamination, which most foresee as inevitable, given the high out-crossing rate, vigor, and weedy-nature of this plant.

Canada is a major producer of alfalfa seed. Alfalfa is also widely grown on organic farms as a green-manure cover crop that adds nutrients to the soil and reduces weed pressure. This is also an important forage crop for livestock producers.

GE contamination has been reported in Washington, and many see that widespread contamination is inevitable, as reported here.

Read more about GE alfalfa from these sources:

National Farmer’s Union

Saskatchewan Organic Directorate

Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

And read about the lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety against the USDA over GE alfalfa here.

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Canadian Seed Finder

Ecological Seed Finder

Seeds of Diversity Canada has created an excellent resource to help source seed across Canada.

Ecological Seed Finder finds seed from based on crop, variety, region and can even filter for organic seed. There is also a graph showing how many varieties are available for each region. This is a must for finding seed this year!

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North Dakota seed growers named farmers of the year

From the MOSES (Mid-west Organic and Sustainable Education Service) conference, the largest organic conference in the US (1300 people this year).
More on the conference here

This is a great talk about organic seed production, selecting varieties for Northern climates, on-farm breeding, creating landraces, effectively using cover crops, mulches and green manures, intercropping, creating crop mixes for feed and more. They end the talk sharing their concern on the threat of Dicamba and 2-4-D resistant crops which will cause increased drift of these deadly herbicides on their organic farm.

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The Genesis of Organic Wheat

Anne Kirk beside wheat cross in Carman

Organic growers heard the news about the recent registration of an organically bred variety of oat at the Organic Alberta conference last year in Olds. At this year’s conference in Barrhead, we heard another announcement: the registration of new organically bred wheat.

Anne Kirk made the cross while working on her Master’s degree at the University of Manitoba under the supervision of Dr. Martin Entz. As with the oat, the release of this variety raises many questions: Who will licence and grow the variety? Will registered seed be organic? Will it also be available to non-organic growers? Will buyers see value in an organically-bred variety, or will its agronomic performance simply mean that it’s a better choice for organic growers? These are just some of the questions that were brought up by participants at the Barrhead meeting.

One thing is clear, however, and that’s that this new variety performs better than many modern wheat varieties in the field, yielding 10% more than check varieties grown in organic conditions. That’s because it has been selected for optimum performance in organic growing conditions. The cross, currently named BW487, is between a Canadian variety and one from North Dakota. It is slightly shorter than check varieties and is less prone to lodging. It also has better test weight and slightly later maturity.

Anne Kirk continues her efforts in organic breeding as the project coordinator for the Participatory Breeding Program (wheat, oats and potatoes) which is part of the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security’s research program. The meeting in Barrhead, as well as a recent full-day meeting in Regina in February, is part of an ongoing dialogue with farmers, grain buyers, millers, bakers and others in the organic industry as to what kinds of qualities should these farmer-developed varieties should have.

If you are interested in participating in the development of new organic varieties through the participatory breeding program, please contact David Hobson at

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Red Fife: a niche wheat for small-scale organic growers

Field of Red Fife wheat

Organic farmers examine a field of Red Fife at Loiselle Family Organic Farm

Organic Alberta hosted a conference in Strathmore on March 3, 2014. A panel of organic wheat growers (Bernie Ehnes and Marc Gibeau) from Southern Alberta described their experience with Red Fife. Of its redeeming qualities, Red Fife grows vigorously and tall (outcompeting weeds), yields well when compared with other modern varieties, doesn’t appear to susceptible to rust or fusarium (at least in this area), and perhaps most importantly, is in high demand from regional bakers and home-bakers, as it has a unique, nutty flavour. Bakers have been successful in producing breads (and even croissants!) with Red Fife flour.

Marc Gibeau in his wheat field

Marc Gibeau in his Red Fife field

The downsides of the crop is that Red Fife’s height causes two problems: a high amount of straw makes combining slow, and the tall crop is prone to lodging, making it susceptible to sprouting and disease.


Marc Loiselle sells his wheat in small packages to local consumers.

While Red Fife is not a registered variety, there are several growers in Canada who now grow it, and there is plenty of seed available. Most make the most out of it by selling direct to consumers and value-adding: either by packaging in small bags and direct-shipping (as Ernie does), or by milling it and delivering to local bakeries (as Marc does). Marc adds further value by using a stone mill that rotates at a slow speed, preventing rapid spoilage of the flour which is caused by high heat from steel roller-milling.

Because it is not registered in Canada, moving Red Fife in large quantities could be difficult. But growers who keep production small and are willing to build strong ties with to local bakers interested in a unique product, may have found their niche.

Here’s a list of some Red Fife growers in the Prairies:

Loiselle Organic Family Farm:

Heritage Harvest:

Ehnes Organic:

Gold Forest Grains:

To learn more about the history of Red Fife wheat in Canada, visit this site.

To see how Red Fife performed against other wheat crops in organic systems in California, visit this site for a study performed by the Organic Seed Allaince.

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Saving heritage seed in a Manitoba Mennonite village

On a cold, sunny day in February, a small group of passionate seed savers gathers in a historic town to talk about seeds and where they came from. It’s a town called Neubergthal, Manitoba. The Neubergthal Heritage Society has been working to preserve house-barns in this town and turning them into social gathering spaces. These old buildings were build by early Mennonite settlers who came to Canada to escape war and conflict. Settling on a tract of land granted to them by the Canadian government, the Mennonites insisted on developing their farmland and towns so that they could preserve a sense of community. Instead of sections of land where the houses were far apart, they made long, narrow divisions and assembled the houses together, making a town in the centre of all their farms. These farmers built house-barns, a traditional building that connects the warm barn to the house, making good use of heat and protection from the prevailing winds. Not only were they adept builders, they were prodigious gardeners, with burgeoning market gardens growing in their backyards.

This building is the first of several that are being restored in the small village. It will be used as a learning centre and seed bank.

This Seedy Saturday event brought young and old together to share stories about farming, families and the future of food.

Some go to great lengths to document preserve their heritage. This document tells the story of a melon brought to Canada from Ukrainian Mennonites in the 1870’s and is still being preserved by the family. Seeds of Diversity, along with small Canadian seed companies like Heritage Harvest Seed, are working hard to keep these seeds alive, and efforts like the Neubergthal Society are building on this work.

The Bauta Seed Initiative is a proud supporter of this project, which brings together a strong team of farmers, a seed saver and a professor at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg. There are more events planned in the summer, and the project includes growing out heirloom Mennonite seed varieties and building a seed bank to house them.

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