Two income streams | There are existing markets for hemp seed and fibre and more interest is being shown in both
Quips about hemp’s hallucinogenic cousin, marijuana, are inevitable in discussions about the crop, but its potential profit for farmers is no laughing matter.
Rod Lanier has been growing hemp for six years on his farm near Leth-bridge, and with hemp seed prices nearing $1 per pound and yields ranging from 700 to 1,200 lb. per acre, the potential profit picture is attractive.
As well, fibre from the crop can provide additional returns.
“Anything that generates $1,000 on dry land is very enticing,” Lanier told a tour group organized by the Alberta Biomaterials Development Centre July 11.
He estimated his input costs at $200 to $300 per acre, much of it spent on nitrogen.
“It loves nitrogen. It’s a pig. But with the value of the seed, it’s like high-end canola. It’s well worth putting on 65 cent per pound nitrogen,” said Lanier.
His experience with the crop has involved trial and error. Strong southern Alberta winds don’t favour tall, leggy varieties so he has moved to a shorter variety, X59, which he obtains from Terramax in Qu’Appelle, Sask.
He is also monitoring results from different seeding dates in mid to late May and experimenting with liquid nitrogen applications using streamer bars in hopes of keeping the crop short but productive.
Hemp production begins with a licence application to Health Canada and a criminal record check. It also includes a crop inspection.
A licence allows the grower to buy certified seed, which is a Health Canada requirement.
Lanier said he seeds 25 to 30 lb. per acre, though rates on irrigated land are higher. The crop is shallow-seeded after pre-seed burnoff, similar to canola and with a similar initial fertility recipe.
Broadleaf herbicides are required for the usual reasons but also to maintain straw quality for end users of hemp fibre.
Lanier has grown hemp under irrigation and on dry land.
“It does not like its feet wet when it’s young,” he said.
“If you’re putting it under irrigation, which we have, we keep the water off early.”
Hemp grows quickly and has a short season. Lanier said he’s never had frost issues with the crop.
However, harvest and storage are challenging.
“We have done a fair bit of modification to our combine to make it work. After six years of messing around, we are cutting the tops off the hemp plant, going just low enough to get all the seed, dropping that in a windrow, baling that when it’s dry, then going back with swathers and cutting and baling what’s left.”
Lanier said his harvest crew had 19 fires last year because of static electricity and other factors, so handling isn’t for the faint of heart.
The seed should ideally be harvested at more than 15 percent moisture. Lanier said he has been able to better manage the crop by using a stripper header and harvesting seed and fibre in two stages.
Storage of the seed, or hemp hearts, at high moisture is difficult, he added. A sweet taste is crucial to buyers, and taste can deteriorate quickly if the seed begins to heat.
“It’s far more challenging, say, than storing flax or canola or peas.”
Lori-Jo Graham, a development officer with Alberta Agriculture’s biomaterials branch, said her department is exploring potential markets for hemp seed and fibre.
“We have a strong interest in hemp because of the dual aspects of the crop,” she said.
Alberta was the largest producer of hemp in Canada last year, which also means in North America because the crop cannot legally be grown in the United States.
About 16,000 acres were grown in the province last year.
Graham said her department wrote a report in 2011 on hemp production and marketing, noting the crop has been in and out of favour with government in terms of research and market development funding.
“The conclusion was that there was some good starts in the industry, but especially on the fibre side, there needs to be end markets that are more stable in order to move forward.”
Potential market expansion opportunities include hemp-crete, a building material that combines hemp fibre with lime.
Graham said it is already being used in a few higher-end construction projects, including luxury homes, medical facilities and an Ontario library. The lighter, breathable material is also appealing for its renewable nature.
Further possibilities exist in using hemp fibre for animal bedding, textiles, car panels and parts, mats for erosion control and oil field reclamation.
As for the seed, Alberta Agriculture development officer Kellie Jackson said there is considerable interest in hemp as a food component that enhances nutrition.
“On the food side, there’s a lot of opportunity. It’s a natural food,” Jackson said.
“Every essential amino acid is there in functional levels and quantities.”
Lanier said hemp straw is valuable, although price depends on the end use.
He encouraged farmers to experiment with the crop. Planting it without a contract is risky at this point.
“Start experimenting with acres and figure out whether you’ve got the right equipment,” Lanier said.
“There’s tons of challenges, but I would think it’s going to be a great crop, so I’m going to keep growing it.”