Hemp firm eyes Alberta to diversify

Processor offers contracts | Manitoba Harvest wants to contract 20,000 more acres

A Manitoba hemp company is seeking to increase its contracts and acreage in southern Alberta.

Clarence Shwaluk, director of farm operations for Manitoba Harvest, spoke with farmers at a number of meetings in early January seeking to increase the company’s contracted acreage to 50,000 acres from 30,000.

“We’re looking to diversify,” he said.

“We have a fairly good pocket of production in Manitoba. We have a strong pocket in the Carrot River area northeast of Saskatoon. Looking out here is going to help us diversify.”

Manitoba Harvest is said to be the largest vertically integrated hemp manufacturer in the world and is based in Winnipeg.

It is one of two major hemp seed buyers in Canada. The other is Hemp Oil Canada in St. Agathe, Man.

Manitoba Harvest contracts, processes and markets hemp-based products.

The most well known might be Hemp Hearts, which are raw, shelled hemp seeds available in most major Canadian grocery chains.

Shwaluk said the company is offering contracts with prices of 75 to 84 cents per pound, depending on quality and the timing of delivery. Organic hemp prices are $1.26 to $1.35 per lb.

Prices are based on clean seed picked up at the farm or at the seed cleaning plant, with the company paying the freight to Winnipeg.

Shwaluk said the company bases its plans on average anticipated yields of 500 lb. per acre but added that the figure is “a conservative dryland yield.”

Yields of 1,000 to 1,800 lb. per acre are possible for organic growers with good soil and irrigation, while yields of more than 2,000 lb. per acre are possible with fertilizer and irrigation, said Evan Berger of Alberta Agriculture, who attended a Lethbridge meeting Jan. 10.

Under contract, Manitoba Harvest has the first right to buy extra product beyond the expected 500 lb. per acre, and Shwaluk said it has always done so when that situation has occurred.

He said the company’s plant runs year-round, and its goal is to process 25 million lb. of hemp seed this year. It anticipates burgeoning demand for its products in the U.S. health food market.

“In the U.S., we’re just scratching the surface. The potential for growth is just huge.”

Hemp does not tolerate standing water or salinity but is otherwise versatile in terms of soil type. Shwaluk said it should be fertilized the same as a high-yielding canola crop, with 80 to 120 lb. of nitrogen and 40 lb. of phosphorus.

No chemicals are registered for weed, insect or fungal infection, but hemp is competitive against weeds and has few insect issues, Shwaluk said. Bertha armyworms, grasshoppers and wireworms have caused damage.

The crop should be shallow seeded into warm soil. Conventional seeding equipment works well, but cylinder types of combines work better than rotary.

Some Alberta hemp growers swath the crop first, but it can also be straight combined, said Shwaluk.

Stored seed should be dried to nine percent moisture, and the process must be done slowly to avoid yellowed kernels.

Manitoba Harvest wants the seed, but there are no major Alberta buyers for hemp fibre, of which the crop produces plentiful amounts.

Lori-Jo Graham of Alberta Agriculture’s food and bioprocessing division said two companies have expressed interest in building fibre plants in southern Alberta within the next few years.

A company called Stemia is planning a $33 million plant near Chin, which would process hemp fibre into mats, panels and building materials.

Another company, Cylab International, is considering a plant near Nanton, which would buy long-fibre hemp for production of biocomposites.

Canadian farmers planted a record 66,671 acres of hemp last year, which is up from 8,000 acres in 2008. The Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance projects acreage will reach 100,000 by 2015 and 250,000 by 2018.

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