This spring Canadian growers will have access to feminized hemp varieties with high cannabidiol, CBD, levels.
CBD is an active ingredient of cannabis plants and there is an emerging market for the compound that Canadian growers have struggled to tap into.
The cultivar, called CBF1, is the first feminized hemp hybrid to be approved by Health Canada.
The hemp seed is produced by Lethbridge-based Tritium 3H, which has two owners, High-Tech Production and Jayme Hunter.
Scott Horner is the manager of High-Tech Production, a seed company that provides services to plant-breeding companies in Australia, Europe and produces certified hybrid seed for most of the canola seed companies operating in Canada.
“We’re testing those (hemp) varieties here in western Canada to make sure they have a fit in the environment. We’re putting those varieties through the Health Canada approval process and then we are finding distribution. We’re not taking seed to market directly ourselves,” said Horner.
When the plants have less than 0.3 percent tetrahydracannabinol, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, they can be classified as hemp, while plants that exceed this level are classified as cannabis in Canada.
Cannabis cannot be grown in open-air broad acre production in Canada.
“A 28 to 1 or 30 to 1 ratio in hemp, CBD to THC, is very common. And so what that means is you can produce a product that’s maybe 10 percent CBD before you start approaching that upper limit of THC .3 percent,” said Horner.
To sell certified hemp seed, companies need Health Canada approval and have Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies certified seed.
Tritium 3H has CBF1 on the list of approved cultivars but they didn’t have any certified seed available for the 2020 season.
However, the company’s first seed production is happening now so there will be seed available for planting in 2021.
“It’ll be a game changer for CBD production in Canada. So with CBF1, you know will be looking to produce upwards of 10 percent CBD versus though the current grain cultivars that are available in the market where people have been collecting chaff, collecting flower and trying to process CBD. Most of those varieties are in the one percent CBD range,” Horner said.
CBF1 is a sole purpose cultivar that is used for CBD production, and likely will not be used to harvest the hemp seed or fibre.
The benefit of growing feminized hybrids is that without pollination the flower will continue to grow and add weight, and without seed set the CBD values continue to increase.
“Once the flowers are pollinated the plant stops producing CBD, so having the feminized cultivar allows producers to maximize their CBD production.” said Horner
He said in the United States, 90 percent of the CBD production is completed with feminized cultivars, and that having feminized hemp varieties with high CBD levels in Canada should reduce the number of acres needed to meet demand.
CBF1 is a longer season variety that will be suited to Ontario or British Columbia.
However, Tritium 3H has more varieties going through the Health Canada approval process this winter that are suited to the Prairies.
“We’ve applied for approval on three new early maturing feminized cultivars,” said Horner.
“Seed production of those new cultivars is happening as well. So we expect to have feminized cultivars that will fit well into the western Canadian environment as well this season.”
Jeff Kostuik is the director of agronomy support for Hemp Production Services, which is a distributor of Tritium 3H hemp varieties.
He said hemp has been around in Canada since 1998, but most of the breeding efforts have revolved around food production.
In 2017, when it became evident there was an emerging market for CBD, Canadian crop researchers and breeders began to evaluate CBD content in these varieties.
The hemp varieties had low levels cannabinoids, including CBD.
“So we weren’t able to participate in that market as readily as countries like the U.S. were, with I guess less-stringent regulations in that regard,” Kostuik said.
He said the new feminized hemp varieties will help level the playing fields with producers in the U.S., but there has been a sharp decline in returns for CBD so efficiencies all the way through the value chain will be needed to make CBD production profitable.
“Genetics is the first and obvious one. The higher percentage of CBD that you have to work with to begin with gives you a little bit more leeway along the along the value chain. But still there’s going to be a lot of advancements needed in harvesting techniques, and just understanding how we handle this molecule easier and more efficiently when it comes to production,” Kostuik said.
Hemp seed production uses row spacing comparable to other broad acre crops, so that the seed stays near the top of the plant and can be easily harvested.
For CBD production the valuable part of the plant is not just located near the top.
“The plant structure of high CBD crops branches right down to the lower part of the canopy. It looks much more like a Christmas tree. That bodes more into wider rows spacing, more space between the plants, and handling the crop much differently than our traditional broad acre harvest equipment,” Kostuik said.
This means there will be significant differences in growing hemp varieties for CBD production compared to seed or fibre production.
Now that feminized hemp varieties that can achieve high CBD levels at harvest are available, research can be conducted into finding the most efficient way to harvest the CBD molecule, which is volatile and subject to gassing off if not treated gingerly.
Some producers will try growing the plants in an orchard style where they can harvest the whole plant and dry it before extracting the CBD.
Other growers may try it on a larger scale and use something like a stripper header to gather the plant material.
However, hemp is the strongest naturally occurring fibre in the world and it can be tricky to work with.
Hemp Production Services and Uniseeds have both signed seed distribution agreements with Tritium 3H for the new T3H high CBD, feminized hemp hybrid.