Farming hemp: it’s everything. Oil, protein, fibre, animal bedding, concrete, fuel . . .

Yesterday was a cheerful day at the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance annual conference here in Winnipeg.

It’s often cheery and positive at this conf in recent years, but I remark on the optimistic tone because hemp, more than almost any other crop on the Canadian Prairies, has had a rocky birth, rebirth, second death and second resurrection. It was originally banned in the early 20th century because of its dope-producing qualities, then came back in the 1990s, when low-THC varieties and lots of work allowed commercial hemp to be grown without the danger of crossing the two worlds of commercial crop and criminal underworld.

Acreage surged, as the crop’s multiple uses excited both farmers and investors, and a huge and growing demand seemed about to be met with northern Prairie farmers’ hemp – but then everything collapsed. Buyers failed or failed to materialize, combines went up in flames (literally), lots of bad stuff happened. And acreage collapsed.

Flash forward to the last half dozen years and the diligent folks of the hemp industry – basically the people in the room at the CHTA convention – are atop a hot crop that truly is filling multiple market demands and giving farmers legitimate hopes of a long term sustainable crop to add permanently into their rotations. It’s still not a big crop, but doesn’t seem a speculative enthusiasm either.

Here’s an interview I did with Dauphin, Manitoba farmer Chris Dzisiak, an industry founder, about the crop’s bounceback from the dark days:

Here are some highlights (for me) from the convention:

Chinese demand and production is likely to grow, with Canadians as partners

There was lots of talk about China at the conf, with that nation’s plans to grow millions of acres of the crop and the demand of its huge population being discussed.

Robert Jin, the Chinese founder of Gilbert Plains’ Plains Industrial Hemp Processing, seemed to suggest that for fibre, Western Canada will mostly grow the crop and China will probably process it. Western Canada has advantages in growing the crop, while China has advantages in processing. He is impressed by both environmental and farming conditions in Western Canada.

* “Manitoba has very nice land.” Huge fields make farming in Western Canada easy.

* “The farmer has a very good” set-up of machinery, which allows seeding and harvest to be done well.

* The climate is good. “You are not hot.” Jin said cool summers on the northern Prairies allow strong fibre to develop, which is not true in hotter areas.

But there are some drawbacks too when producing hemp in Western Canada:

* Present varieties grown by farmers seem mostly designed for both seed and fibre production. Those dual-purpose varieties don’t tend to be maximized for fibre quality.

* Farmers grow the crop until the seeds are mature, which makes fibre quality and decortication more challenging.

* Spring is short and harvest can be rushed and difficult.

Jan Slaski of Alberta Innovates Technology Futures talked about China’s demand for hemp production and processing and the risks some see in doing business with the country.

China plans to grow more than 1.3 million hectares of hemp in coming years, so that could be seen as a threat by some. But more than a billion Chinese will be considered “middle class” by next year, which means they have disposable income to spend on things like hemp-containing products. It’s too big a market to ignore and serving that market too would allow Prairie farmers to rely less on Europe and North America, Slaski said.

And while problems with Chinese intellectual property theft worry many Canadian businesses, it’s also a market that’s risky to ignore.

Interesting developments in health, healthy and functional food demand are helping hemp

Svetlana Uduslivaia, a market analyst with Euromonitor International, said some trends in food and nutraceutical markets are helping hemp.

As a protein ingredient, whey has long dominated the market and still does. But alternative proteins like hemp, peas and brown rice are finding good demand from young people, vegans, and women in particular. “Alternative protein” is popular, she said.

And protein products might have become popular in recent years, but pro-protein sentiments aren’t likely to recede. That’s good for the overall protein-as-ingredient market.

Here’s an interview I did with her afterwards:

“Protein has plenty of room to grow.”

On the health food side protein has been offered as both health claim/function specific products and “generally wholesome” products. Uduslivaia said while some consumers have favoured the health function specific products, which offer a focused benefit like heart health, some products that have stayed away from that but instead offer hemp as a wholesome-seeming ingredient in general have done better.

Hempcrete: promise, but lots and lots of wrinkles to work out

University of Manitoba engineers have been working on hempcrete – a building material containing hemp fibre and other materials – and testing simple house-like structures made from the stuff. The sense I got from their presentation is that there’s lots and lots of work to do on perfecting both the formulation and the use of some types of hempcrete before it will be a viable commercial option for many human housing uses. Moisture flow, heat loss, etc. all have to be looked at further. They’ll keep working on it.

Relevant snacks!

It makes sense to me that farmer and agriculture conferences that are based on food products should try to make sure some of the coffee break snacks contain that particular crop, meat or food product. The dairy folks tend to be good at this, and almost always have milk, yoghurt and other appropriate snacks available. Some commodity groups don’t seem to think of it at all, though, and I find that sad.

The hemp folks, on the other hand, are exceptionally good at connecting the coffee break nutrition to their crop. Here’s a few of the things from the coffee break and lunch.

And here’s an interview with the Delta Winnipeg’s banquet chef Kelly Andreas about making these hempy snacks and working with hemp products:

What is hemp? It’s an edible oil. It’s a protein ingredient. It’s a super-tough fibre for construction and textiles. It’s a crop serving multiple markets and giving northern farmers a good option for their rotations. It’s been nice seeing it bounce back.

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