Fibre market remains focus for Man. hemp company

The world, apparently, is going crazy for CBD.

There is an entire magazine dedicated to cannabidiol, a compound found in the leaves and flowers of industrial hemp plants.

Studies suggest that CBD provides pain relief, has anti-inflammatory properties and may help combat anxiety.

There are also health and wellness conferences on CBD and Instagram claims from celebrities like Kirsten Bell, who says CBD-infused body lotion “helps her sore muscles after working out.”

The fervour and excitement around CBD is positive for Can-ada’s hemp industry because the new market for hemp leaves and flowers could be worth billions annually.

However, investors may be forgetting about another part of the hemp plant: the fibre.

“All you heard for the last 10 years, everybody was going to build a hemp (fibre) plant,” said Lyall Bates, owner of Hemp Sense, a company in Gilbert Plains, Man.

“Now the industry has totally changed…. Nobody talks (anymore) about the hurd and fibre. Everybody talks about the CBD oil. That’s the hottest market out there right now.”

Bates is intrigued by CBD, but he’s building a business around hemp fibre. Bates and his colleagues at Hemp Sense have developed several unique processes to turn hemp fibre into products like cat litter and garden enhancers.

“We didn’t have engineers help us.… We designed the whole plant and put it together. And it’s up and operating now,” said Bates, who founded the company and sold shares in 2015 to raise capital for research and development.

The plant, which opened in late June, is located west of Gilbert Plains in an old Brett Young seed facility.

Hemp plants can grow three metres or more in height and fibre from the stalks can be used in making paper, textiles and construction materials.

Bates, who farmed around Gilbert Plains but now rents his land, has been interested in potential uses for hemp fibre for more than a decade.

According to the website Hemp Sense, Bates “toured various hemp plants” around the world in 2008 to gain knowledge about hemp processing.

Following his trip Bates realized that a processing plant for hemp stalks, to separate the two parts of the hemp fibre — the bast and the hurd — was too expensive and too risky.

Bates put hemp fibre and processing the stalks aside for a few years, but he couldn’t let it go.

Eventually, he came up with the idea of shredding the entire stalk and then using the shredded material to make pet and garden products.

In 2016, the Manitoba and federal governments provided Hemp Sense with $125,000 to transform hemp straw into cat litter.

“Hemp Sense’s innovative product converts straw that would likely otherwise be burned into a high-end green product,” said then Manitoba Agriculture Minister Ron Kostyshyn.

The Hemp Sense cat litter may have an advantage in the cat litter market, worth about $3 billion in the United States alone, because hemp is highly absorbent and is a natural product.

“It absorbs five times, or more, its own weight,” Bates said, noting they take the shredded hemp and convert it into a crumble to make the cat litter.

“Being a crumble, any moisture that hits (it) absorbs quickly.”

Another Hemp Sense product is a soil enhancer. When added to a garden, it increases water retention of the soil.

“It grabs the moisture at night and holds onto the moisture. Then when the hot days come without rain, it releases (the water),” Bates said.

A number of Canadian companies, including Home Hardware and pet stores, have expressed interest in the Hemp Sense products. For now, Bates wants to get established in the Canadian market before he moves into the U.S.

In addition to fibre products, Hemp Sense will also be selling hemp seeds and hulls into the human consumption, horse feed and pet food markets. One product is a mixture of hemp seed and chicken liver for pets.

“It’s a great product for the dogs and cats,” Bates said. “We just put it on the market and we’re getting a lot of interest.”

The range of products may have potential but Hemp Sense’s real advantage could be the patents on its production process.

“Hemp Sense has the patent for all of their whole hemp stock products in Canada and the United States, including for shredding the whole or part hemp stock to make pellets, crumbles, flour, cubes, or briquettes,” a company release says.

While he is concentrating on uses for hemp fibre, Bates is also thinking about the potential of CBD. Hemp Sense has a patent to make pellets, crumble and flour from the hemp plant, before the seed is formed, for the purpose of extracting CBD.

Bates said companies have been calling, asking if they can pay a royalty to Hemp Sense to use the technologies.

One challenge for Hemp Sense will be shipping. Gilbert Plains is located west of Dauphin, Man., and thousands of kilometres from major cities like Vancouver, Toronto or Chicago. So, moving things like cat litter and soil enhancers to market will be expensive.

Bates admitted that freight costs are an issue, but Hemp Sense has factored it into the business model.

“That’s one of reasons we went to the crumble or flour (products),” he said, instead of bulky items like insulation.

“We penciled it out that we can make this work.”

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