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Challenges and opportunities of hemp

Could hemp eventually become the next canola for prairie farmers?


November 19, 2007
By Carolyn King

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Don Dewar has been growing industrial hemp on his farm near Dauphin, Manitoba,
for about six years. He is familiar with the challenges, like the tough fibres
wrapping around moving parts in the combine and cracked seeds turning rancid,
but he is also excited about the increasing potential for this annual crop.

Hemp can be used for both its grain and its fibre, though at present almost
all Canadian hemp production is for grain. The plant can grow up to about 15
feet tall. It has a strong taproot and a fibrous stem about 1/4 to 3/4 inches
wide. It grows well in a range of conditions as long as it gets adequate moisture.
Health Canada licenses hemp production and all other aspects of the hemp industry
based on strict regulations. (Hemp and marijuana belong to the same plant species,
but hemp has only very small amounts of the psychoactive component of marijuana.)

Dewar started growing industrial hemp in 1998, the first year that Health Canada
allowed it to be grown. "We missed a couple of years after 1999, then we
started growing smaller acreages again. Now in the last couple of years we've
had about 400 acres on our farm."

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He adds, "In 1999, a particular company contracted a large number of acres,
12,000 acres in the Dauphin area and about 15,000 in Manitoba, I think. That
company folded and the large hemp supply glutted the world market for the grain
for about three years."

That early boom-and-bust experience for Canada's hemp industry underlines the
importance of having a buyer lined up in advance. "We recommend that people
who are considering growing hemp make sure they have a contract and a guaranteed
market before they put it in, so that they don't get caught with product they
can't sell," says Keith Watson, a diversification specialist with Manitoba
Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI).

Watson explains, "There is a fairly good, solid base of hemp grain processors
now, but they are smaller and they are developing. If we had a huge surplus
of hemp from people growing it without a contract, the industry would be in
trouble pretty quickly."

Dewar says, "We contract all our hemp acres. It's such a small market
that I wouldn't try to grow it without a contract. There is some being grown
in other areas without contracts. If there is a poor yield across Canada, that
hemp would probably move, but if there are excellent yields, the contracted
acres, of course, would get used up first. And hemp seed doesn't keep well,
so you can't store it indefinitely."

Production considerations
Dewar outlines some of the key features of his industrial hemp production system.
He emphasizes two key factors for successful seeding. "First of all, industrial
hemp is a fragile seed. Since most of us use air-seeders now, we have to be
careful not to use too high an air volume to prevent cracking the seed. If it
cracks, you'll ruin the germination. The second thing is to seed it into warm
soil, very shallow, as shallow as canola or shallower. Industrial hemp germinates
with very little moisture and seems to get up and going, but it's not a vigorous
plant until it gets about eight inches to a foot tall."

Because Dewar wants to seed into warm soils, he usually waits until at least
mid May to seed. In some years he has seeded much later. For instance, very
wet conditions in June 2005 prevented him from seeding until about June 28.
Nevertheless, the crop still had a reasonable yield. "I think we got 400
pounds per acre of cleaned seed, which is a good average yield." Dewar
has had yields of more than 1000 pounds per acre.

Hemp is a photosensitive plant so its flowering date and maturity depend on
day length, rather than seeding date. Dewar finds that the plant sets seed in
the first or second week of August no matter when the crop is planted. "The
plant grows until it sets seed. Then it stops growing but continues seed production.
So if we are trying to limit the amount of fibre production, because it's difficult
to harvest the seed from a real tall plant, we seed a little bit later to try
to keep it shorter. We've had excellent yields and an easily handled crop by
seeding from the 10th to 15th of June."

Current fertilizer recommendations for hemp are similar to those for canola.
Dewar says, "It seems to respond to fertilizer, but it's actually not a
real high user. We've been using about 50 to 60 pounds of actual nitrogen and
putting a small amount of phosphate with the seed. We have to be careful how
much volume goes through the seed tube because we don't want to crack our seed,
so we have been putting about 15 to 20 pounds of actual phosphate with the seed."

No herbicides are registered for use in hemp. Weed control can be an issue
during the first month of growth when the plant is not very competitive. "You
need to select very clean land so that the hemp gets going," he says. "We
do a pre-seeding burnoff using glyphosate and by delaying seeding to the end
of May or later, you get a better result with that. Any late germinating weeds
will get choked out once the hemp gets about eight inches tall, after that you
can almost hear it grow."

Disease and insects have not been a problem. He notes, "We've found evidence
of sclerotinia, but we haven't seen it affect the yield. So hemp may be a host
plant. It's something we have to watch."

Harvesting the seed can be tough. The plants are very tall and very fibrous
and can wrap around moving parts in the combine. Dewar says, "There were
some horror stories in the first two or three years of hemp production in Canada
of people burning combines, for example. But those were people who had swathed
it and let it really dry. When it gets too dry, you can't break the stalks by
hand; and you can hardly do it when they are wet. We tend to start the harvest
when the seed is around 20 percent moisture, although some people will start
when it is as high as 25 percent.

"The challenge immediately after harvest is getting it dried down. Any
type of dryer that uses an auger is going to crack some seed. We just use aeration.
If we have some that is very tough to dry, we use an old bin dryer that moves
a lot of air and just run the fan without the heat. We'll aerate to get the
seed dry enough that we can clean it, and then continue to aerate it,"
explains Dewar. "The seed needs to be cleaned because any cracked seed
gets rancid and that will affect the seeds beside it."

Capturing the full potential
Industrial hemp acreage has been growing rapidly in recent years on the prairies.
In Manitoba, it has risen from about 4000 acres in 2004, to 12,000 acres in
2005 and to an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 acres in 2006. And that is just to
supply the growing market for hemp seed.

Hemp seed has a wide range of food and non-food uses including salad dressings,
spreads, nutrition bars, cereals, beer and body care products. Its nutritional
characteristics include easily digestible complete protein, more essential fatty
acids than any other source, and many vitamins and minerals.

But what about all that fibre? "Fibre is where we see the huge potential,"
says Dewar. Hemp fibre has qualities like strength, light weight and durability
that make it very desirable for use in products ranging from textiles and paper
to insulation and parts for aircraft, buses and cars.

Until now, Dewar has been burning the fibre left after harvesting the grain,
but in 2006 he planned to bale some of it for fibre processing. For several
years now, Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers (PIHG) Co-op has been working towards
establishing a hemp fibre processing facility, called Parkland Biofibre, in
Dauphin. Dewar is a member of PIHG and the chairman of Parkland Biofibre. This
recently formed company has the necessary business structure to raise funds
for investment. He says, "We would like to complete raising the money this
fall so that we can start construction in the spring and production could begin
in about August or September."

One of the products that Parkland Biofibre is planning to produce is a type
of insulation that could be used in place of pink fibreglass insulation. Dewar
explains that the technology to produce this insulation is already available.
And he notes that research is underway at the Composites Innovation Centre in
Winnipeg to develop processes to use hemp and other agricultural fibres in industrial
applications.

The new 'canola'?
Watson compares hemp's potential today with that of canola when it was first
developed. He says, "Fifty years ago, canola was kind of scoffed at by
researchers, growers and others as being something that may or may not make
it. There was little research available and people didn't want to start research
because they were skeptical as to the future of the crop. I think hemp is at
that stage now."

Research on industrial hemp production for the prairies is in its infancy.
In Manitoba, just a few agencies are conducting such research, explains Watson.
For example, MAFRI and the Parkland Crop Diversification Foundation are involved
in agronomic studies on such aspects as fertility, seeding rates and variety
comparisons. MAFRI has also published an industrial hemp production manual,
which is available on its web site.

PIHG is involved in various research activities such as conducting some trials
toward applying for minor use registration for some herbicides. It also has
a hemp breeding program, which started in 2002. That program is developing improved
grain, fibre and dual purpose varieties. It has already developed Alyssa, a
variety with good yields of both grain and fibre. Alyssa is registered and in
the early stages of release.

Another factor boosting hemp's potential is that does well in the Parkland
regions of the prairie provinces. Watson says, "In the northwest part of
Manitoba, we can grow wheat and canola. Generally, we don't have the heat units
for most other cash crops like beans and sunflowers, but hemp fits in this area,
maturing nicely and getting good yields. Maybe, again like canola, it will fit
a lot of parts of western Canada and give a cash crop to many of those areas."

Watson adds, "The big difference between canola and hemp is that with
hemp we have two potentials: the grain and the fibre. So in the bio-economy,
it's probably got bigger potential than canola. Will we see the same kind of
acres as canola in the future? Who knows? Talk to me in 50 years!" -30-

Reducing harvesting hurdles

"People who are looking at growing industrial hemp need to be sure they
have a well thought-out plan of how they will actually physically combine it
for grain. There is enough experience now that producers have figured out how
to combine it, but new growers need to learn those little tricks. They have
to spend some time and a little bit of money to make sure their combines will
be able to handle it," says MAFRI's Keith Watson.

Watson often refers new growers to producer groups like the Parkland Industrial
Hemp Growers (PIHG) Co-op, based in Dauphin. Dewar, who is a member of that
group, says, "You can describe to someone, and we've done it many times,
what they need to do to combine hemp. But until you actually do it and learn
the sounds of your combine with the hemp going through it, you don't know what
it's like."

Harvesting equipment may need some adjustments to handle hemp. Dewar describes
the adjustments he has made to his 7720 John Deere combine. "Right from
the first year that we grew hemp, we've used a draper-type header. We are putting
up to four feet of the plant through the combine, that's about the maximum that
you want to try to put through, and we find the draper header feeds the stalks
more evenly and straight up into the feeder house. However, we know people who
have used the auger headers and haven't had problems.

"We also take the feeder chain out of our combine and put in a belt with
slats on it to prevent any wrapping on the shafts. And, laugh if you will, we
put Spam on the axles, the little stub shafts, and that makes them very slippery.
Those are the only shafts that are exposed to wrapping on the combine.

"The other thing is some fibre will wrap up at the very ends of the cylinder
shaft. So we've made a little tool to reach in and cut that off. It's usually
about a 20 minute job to cut off both ends. We clean that out every day so it
doesn't pack too much and get hot or ruin a bearing or something."

Working out what is best for your own combine may take a bit of trial and error.
He says, "I have one neighbour who combines quite a bit of hemp. He will
leave seed on the short stalks because he won't put any more than three feet
through his combine. That's his gauge that he won't have any problems."

The condition of the hemp during combining also influences how well it goes
through the combine. Dewar gives an example, "One evening I pulled into
a large hemp field and combined until 2:00am, when I ran out of truck space…
I went back out at 9:00am or 10:00am the next morning and started again. And
I just couldn't keep it from wrapping inside the combine. Yet I was having no
problems the night before. I have yet to figure out why, but I think it might
have been a change in the humidity." -30-

 


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