Company launches mobile hemp, flax decorticators

An Alberta company might help solve a hemp-processing problem by supplying mobile equipment to farmers to extract valuable fibres from the crop.

Jesse Hahn, vice-president of venture development at Natural Fibre Technologies, said the company plans to launch at least three to five mobile decorticators this year, possibly changing the hemp-and flax-decortication game in Canada.

“We hope to solve this idea that decortication has to be expensive,” Hahn said. “That’s why no one really wants to invest in it. It’s too risky.”

The mobile equipment would be a fraction of the cost but work similarly to the big stationary machines.

They separate hemp and flax straw into hurd and fibre, which can later be used to create construction blocks, paper, animal bedding and mulch as well as a few other products.

“It worked beyond our expectations,” Hahn said, speaking about the results from a pilot project.

“The method by which it processes the straw, leaving the outer fibre intact, as well as the cleanliness and the separation of fibre and hurd, works great.”

The machines come at what some say is an optimistic time in the hemp industry.

With Canada legalizing recreational cannabis, more producers might be enticed to grow the crop as farmers with permits can now sell leaves, buds and flowers.

As well, passage of the United States Farm Bill, which legalizes hemp, could open up markets.

Natural Fibre Technologies has developed a program to encourage producers to get on board with the machines.

Hahn said the program could see a group of producers or business people come together and strike an agreement with Natural Fibre Technologies.

The company would provide the mobile equipment under a leasing agreement and it would guarantee the purchase of decorticated hemp and flax at a fixed price. Natural Fibre Technologies would use the collected fibre to create its products, which include construction blocks, boards, mats, mulch and animal bedding.

Natural Fibre Technologies can create many products from hemp fibre, including boards and construction blocks. | Photo supplied by Jesse Hahn

The machines can process up to two tonnes of material per hour. They would be set up in a farm or community quonset or other type of shelter.

“Rather than buying the straw, we are giving farmers the opportunity to further value-add their crop and sell the crop at a higher price because it has been processed,” Hahn said.

The model has other benefits. He said because the machines are mobile, they aren’t bound to conditions out of the company’s control.

For instance, if a crop fails, or if a farmer decides he no longer wants to grow hemp, the decorticator can be moved to a participating farm or where the crop is performing well.

As well, he said, it solves some of the logistics around moving product.

He said once fibre is extracted from the straw, the leftover hurd can be sold to local garden centres or stables, rather than being sent to a far-away processing facility near Edmonton.

The next potential benefit of the machine, he said, is that it could help the industry figure out where it should make big investments.

If lots of farmers are growing hemp near Taber, Alta., for example, Hahn said it might make sense for a value-added facility to be built in that region, rather than building a facility far away from there.

“If we can solve that supply gap, we can facilitate other small businesses,” he said.

As well, the program could have environmental spin-offs.

Hemp is known to be good at sequestering carbon, he said, and if more value-added products are being created with hemp fibre, there would be less of a need to use petrochemical or forestry resources.

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