EDMONTON — Hemp has earned a permanent place in Chris Butkiewicz’s crop rotation.
“Hemp is one of our better money makers,” Butkiewicz of Tilley, Alta., said during the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance convention.
“It’s not our easiest crop to grow, but it is one of our highest returning crops. We enjoy a challenge.”
Butkiewicz started growing hemp six years ago with a trial 60 acres. After trials and successes, his 260 acres of hemp are now the same as other high value crops such as confectionary sunflowers and timothy.
“I just look at the long range,” he said. “Hemp has been very steady in price. It seems to be consistent yields, and prices have been consistent. I like to grow non-traditional crops. They don’t fluctuate in price as much as conventional crops.”
Butkiewicz estimates hemp earns 30 to 50 percent more than some of his other crops, including canola.
He said a consistently strong price and no sign of lowering demand makes it easier to put up with the harvest hassles.
“There seems to be tons of market. Right now there’s demand for everything. It’s a great time to be a farmer.”
Markus Schmulgen, president of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance, said there is a positive feel to the industry. The group is predicting Canadian farmers will grow 100,000 acres of hemp by 2015, up from 25,000 acres today.
“This industry will grow leaps and bounds. I believe there will be more producers, more processors and more consumers,” said Schmulgen.
Hemp first became legal to grow in Canada in 1998. In those days, the amount of hemp grown exceeded demand.
Manitoba farmers grew the most acres at first, but that is now spread more evenly between the three prairie provinces, especially with prices that make hemp a competitive alternative to other crops.
Hemp plays a major role on Dalyce Brewin’s organic farm near Taber, Alta.
“It fits in great with rotation. It helps take care of different weed control,” said Brewin, who operates Rowland Seeds.
Brewin increases the value of his crop by cleaning seed on the farm before sending it on for further processing. Seed markets are good, but he hopes researchers will soon help develop a good market for fibre as well. Bales of hemp now sit in stacks waiting for future markets.
“We would really like to see the fibre industry grow. That’s one of our big focuses now. Now only the seed is utilized.”
Will Van Roussel has grown hemp for three years under irrigation. He started with two small fields at his farm near Bow Island, Alta., and hemp now accounts for one-fifth of his acreage.“I was impressed with how the crop grows,” said Van Roussel, who also grows hemp for sale as pedigreed seed.
“There are no real harvest issues or horror stories I heard from other growers. This isn’t too bad to grow.”
Unlike other hemp crops, which are two metres tall, the variety grown under irrigation is the same height as wheat, which makes harvest easy.
The crop is swathed and combined dry, simplifying storage.
Irrigated hemp produces an average 1,500 pounds per acre. At an average 65 cents per lb., a reasonable hemp crop should gross $1,000 an acre.
“That’s what we’re targeting,” Van Roussel said. “It doesn’t compete with hybrid canola, but puts it in the same category as edible beans or irrigated canola.”
He said his neighbours are also starting to look seriously at growing hemp.
“The first year or two it’s a curiosity thing. As they see I keep growing it, they think I must be making money and they start asking questions.”
He expects four neighbours to grow hemp under irrigation next spring.
Schmulgen said farmer success stories will help expand the industry, which helps fill the growing demand for hemp seed.
The association’s job is to help develop new varieties, give farmers production advice and help processors meet the growing demand for product.
“The processors are literally busting at the seams,” he said.
“They don’t know where to get the next processing capacity from, and producers are coming back into the fold. There was a backlash, but we are maturing as an industry.”