While an Alberta processing facility is busy, contracted fibre acres remain on the horizon
Most of Alberta’s hemp acres are located in the southern part of the province, but the crop has a “northern advantage,” says a researcher.
Ongoing work in the province is showing the crop’s potential in the Peace region, where growers can produce a taller, more fibrous stalk, said Jan Slaski of Alberta Innovates Technology Futures.
This year will be the second in a four-year trial evaluating the performance of nine hemp varieties in Lethbridge, Vegreville and Faller.
“We found that by virtue of growing the same cultivar in the north, in the Peace, we are getting one-third, or in some instances, twice as much fibre as the same cultivar grown in the south,” said Slaski.
The study is using new and old varieties as well as fibre and dual purpose cultivars.
Breeders have traditionally pursued shorter plants, which are favoured by buyers interested in hemp seed.
Almost all of the acres grown today are for grain crops, with major buyers in Manitoba seeking seed, oil and protein for food markets.
“Hemp is a short-day plant, so long days delay flowering…. Hemp elongates or grows until flowers are set,” said Slaski.
“So automatically in the north, when we are getting these 18 hours of daylight at the end of June and the beginning of July, hemp just grows taller and produces more biomass or fibre.”
Taller plants can be processed for their fibre to produce fabrics and industrial materials, but fibre markets have proven elusive.
However, Slaski said business is picking up at Alberta Innovates’ processing facility in Vegreville.
The pilot scale facility is capable of processing one tonne of fibre per hour. Slaski said the organization will work with at least five companies this year to test potential products.
“Our capacity … was not meant to be a commercial scale or commercial capacity,” said Slaski.
A commercial facility would process at least seven tonnes per hour, he added.
“But since there is a need … we are prepared to serve.”
He said the demand is enough that a second shift could be required this fall.
“For the last couple of years, we had guys coming and kicking the tires, (saying) ‘we need 50 kilograms,’ “ said Slaski, who is now fielding requests to process hundreds of tonnes.
“Finally now, these efforts that we made over the last couple of years, they pay off in the sense that we are having real companies that want to build their facilities here, primarily in southern Alberta.”
Officials aren’t expecting hemp acres to increase this year, but Kim Shukla of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance has observed a concentration of interest in hemp fibre in central Alberta, located around the publicly funded Vegreville facility.
“That sort of helped to move that sector along,” she said.
Slaski said the Alberta crop will remain dedicated to contracted acres of grain and dual purpose varieties for the time being.
“We are not there yet,” he said.
“We are in on the verge of getting to contracted fibre acres.”