Marketing key in hemp sector

Producers interested in growing hemp have to know ahead of time how to plant it and later how to market it.  |  File photo

Advance research into markets and agronomy is vital for those who want to grow hemp.

Jeff Kostiuk of Hemp Genetics International fields calls from producers interested in growing what could be a lucrative crop, but they have to know ahead of time how to plant it and later market it.

“You have to realize what is your end-use going to be,” he said.

Hemp has been grown for thousands of years but new and improved genetics and marketing ideas have renewed its popularity. How to grow the crop for the best results was explained at the recent Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance meeting in Calgary.

Research trials are underway at 17 locations across Canada to test 16 varieties in different climates and growing conditions, said James Frey of Manitoba Agriculture.

The goal is to provide accurate information for growers and industry around environmental stability and economically important traits.

Plant vigour, height, days to flowering and maturity are among the traits they are examining among 16 varieties.

Grain and fibre yield and cannabidiol (CBD) and heavy metal analysis are assessed for each of the varieties.

Male-to-female plant count and ratios are also measured because male plants do not produce seed.

Shorter crops are preferred for grain, whereas dual-purpose types have average to lower grain yield but good fibre.

Fibre testing is done only on dual-purpose varieties. Researchers test the submissions for fibre length, mass, content, tensile strength and average diameter.

All varieties are tested for leaf biomass, which is connected to CBD content.

Quality starts on the farm.

Farmers must know when to seed and when and how to harvest and understand the impact of fertility and other agronomic factors.

“We must remain consistent and standardized and provide quality in a consistent manner,” said Jeff Kostiuk.

A crop rotation history is necessary because continuous hemp cannot be grown on the same field. Hemp plants may also react to pesticide residues from the previous year, so field history records are needed.

Hemp needs nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulfur on well-drained soils with adequate moisture.

“You need to put this crop on your best soils. Over the number of years, hemp has traditionally been one of the top-grossing economic benefits to the bottom line on a farm so there is no sense putting it on a piece of ground that has a challenge,” he said.

He advises farmers to seed shallow into warm soils of about 10 C. Hemp can also go in later in spring compared to other crops, without losing yields in autumn.

A number of different planters can work, but farmers must pay attention to how each works to prevent seed damage. Growers should aim for 10 to 12 plants per sq. foot or 150 plants per sq. metre.

Hemp is susceptible to sclerotinia and botrytis white mould. There are no registered fungicides for hemp, so Kostiuk suggested that growers time seeding to get ahead of the disease.

European corn borer can enter fields. They bore into stalks, causing hemp plans to fall over.

Grasshoppers and bertha armyworms will chew on the biomass, but do not seem to affect yields.

Hemp appears to be more frost-tolerant than flax and soybeans and hail recovery is reasonably good. Plants in the cellulose phase during high winds may snap, but can regrow.

For harvest, Kostiuk recommended straight combining at 10 to 20 percent seed moisture, especially if plants are more than five feet tall. The straw can wrap around the combine.

Selling the grain is like handling registered seed, said Will Van Roessel of Specialty Seeds Ltd.

“When you handle this product, you really have to treat it like a seed grower would handle a seed crop. You have to do everything you can to maintain its purity,” he said.

Farmers need to have a market before planting. Many producers have ended up with grain in storage for a long time.

“Every grain company in past years has had trouble matching production with demand. Every company has had issues that way,” he said.

Buyers often want certain varieties and have a list of quality requirements. Most want the product cleaned before delivery.

Buyers consider colour, presence of weeds, fungal disease, other seeds and organic debris.

Most hemp products are sold as gluten-free, so wheat contamination caused in field or during storage and handling by inadequate cleaning can cause problems.

Weeds can also pose big problems. Certain weeds may not reduce the yield but seeds like buckwheat must be cleaned out and a portion of the crop could be lost when undesirable seeds are removed.

Deterioration most often happens in storage. High moisture grain needs to be quickly dried and cooled down.

Depending on moisture content, growers may limit the amount placed in each bin to allow more air flow to more quickly cool and dry the crop to nine percent moisture and 10 C.

Once it is dry, hemp should be run through a pre-cleaner to remove sticks and dust to create a more uniform product in the bin.

When it comes time for growers to sell, processors want samples of the grain to see if it meets their specifications. Samples should be collected after the grain has been dried and cleaned and ready to go into final storage.

Producers must handle samples carefully and make sure their hands are clean. Dirty hands can carry bacteria or other contaminants.

They should also ensure hauling trailers are clean to avoid contamination.

“You have to be careful every stage of the harvest and handling process to maintain your quality,” said Van Roessel.

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