Hemp 101 for Growers

Article by Treena Hein, Country Guide

emp 101 for growers It’s now well established, with three potential markets and increased agronomic support By Treena Hein Six-foot-one Manitoba Harvest/Fresh Hemp summer student Julian Hyde is dwarfed by the CanMa variety recommended for fields with a high weed seed bank.photo: Manitoba Harvest/Fresh Hemp Most combines can now handle hemp without any problem. Photo: Manitoba Harvest/Fresh Hemp

There were challenges for early hemp growers — limited markets, combining troubles and complex licensing requirements, but these problems have been reduced or eliminated. And while demand is not unlimited, it’s stable and growing every year. So if you’re looking for a profitable, easy-to-produce crop that’s also a good rotational option, you might want to give hemp a try.

Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance (CHTA) statistics show Canadian hemp harvested area starting at 5,300 acres in 1998 and trending to 144,525 acres in 2020. The CHTA predicts 181,000 this year and more than 341,000 in 2025.

Of last year’s acres, about 8,100 were for pedigreed seed production, 27,000 for organic oilseed, 76,000 for conventional oilseed, 14,000 for fibre and 20,000 for chaff/biomass (flowers and leaves for cannabinoid extraction.)

“There is lots of opportunity for new growers and it’s the acreage for fibre that’s really expected to grow in the short term,” says CHTA president and CEO Ted Haney.

He says primary fibre processors produce ‘bast’ (used in insulation, erosion-control mats and textiles) and ‘hurd’ (used in hempcrete, industrial absorbents and kitty litter). Bast and hurd also go into paper, and hemp fibre screenings can be pelleted for energy production, or the cellulose in the screenings can be extracted and used for manufacturing explosives, sealants, paints and other products. In February 2020, multinational Georgia-Pacific and Canada-based Bast Fibre Technologies entered into a global licensing agreement for a suite of patents related to the application of bast fibres in various non-woven products and processes.

Swathed or straight-cut fibre is baled, preferably into square bales. Bast Fibre Technologies, Eko-terre and Biocomposites Group are the main fibre buyers in Canada, and Haney says each has various requirements. Some will want the fibre to undergo winter ‘retting’ — exposure to moisture and weathering — while others want a dry, fluffy fibre.

CBD oil, the non-psychedelic cannabinoid product widely touted as a treatment for pain relief, sleep disorders and a host of other medical conditions, can also be extracted from hemp flowers and the small surrounding leaves. Flowers are harvested with a dual cutter (scythe at bottom and swather head at the top) so that fibre is collected at the same time. When producing hemp for seed, cannabinoid-rich chaff can also be collected from the back end of the combine.

However, Haney says the flower harvesting is a relatively small portion of the current demand. “It’s going to take some time for CBD to be a significant part of the industry.”

Organic demand growing

CHTA advisory board member Darrell McElroy, who is also seed production supervisor and agronomist at Manitoba Harvest/Fresh Hemp, says his company wants to contract new growers in 2021, especially for organic hemp.

“We had about 38,000 acres contracted in 2020 and for the first time we had more contracted organic acres than conventional,” he says. “There’s a really good U.S. market for organic hemp oil and hemp hearts. People are realizing the nutritional benefits of hemp and sales have been growing exponentially.” We were worried about the impact of COVID but there hasn’t been any ramifications as far as sales go.”

McElroy says it takes three years to convert conventional production to organic, but it can be possible to start up organic production from pasture or hay land in one year. “Start your paperwork as soon as possible,” he recommends.

If planting hemp after pasture or hay, he says soil tests are a must. Good nutrient levels are needed for a good hemp crop, especially for organic production. “We really like hemp to be grown after a legume. Any volunteers are easily cleaned out and there is no problem with allergens. There’s a potential for gluten allergens from wheat and barley volunteers, and they are hard to clean out. That’s a problem because we have to sell a gluten-free product.”

Like other contractors, Manitoba Harvest provides support from variety selection to storage. The company generally recommends one of three varieties depending on the farm. For fields with a high weed seed bank, for example, there’s a taller variety called CanMa.

McElroy says growers should have no combining problems. Most of the new combines work fine with hemp, he says. Even some that are 20 years old worked fine and some companies made changes to their designs 10 years ago.

“We can advise about your combine or you can always ge

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