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Where The Heck Is Hemp?


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Once touted as a miracle crop for prairie farmers because it is easy and inexpensive to grow, many producers now see hemp as another emerging opportunity that hasn't materialized in a sustainable way, especially in Alberta.

Even last year, when farmers planted more acres of hemp than ever before, Alberta acreage was still less than 11 per cent of the total Canadian production of 19,458 hectares.

Though industrial hemp production in Alberta more than doubled from 2005 to 2006, growers are less optimistic about the future for this year's market. Several producers say they won't be putting any hemp seed into the ground this spring.

"The crop grew so well last year that I stockpiled more than I'll be able to sell this year," notes a Grassy Lake grower who asks to remain anonymous. "It's not a crop that keeps well, so I don't know how I'll do price wise. I'm not sure I'll even be able to sell it as bird seed."

Demand for hemp grain and oil products has grown steadily in the last decade, but Canada faces stiff competition from European and Asian growers in world consumer markets. Most consumers who eat the shelled grain, known as hemp hearts, praise its health benefits. Products made with hemp oil, such as soap and cosmetics, also sell reasonably well. Demand for the fibre, though, is limited to one small company in Canada.

Stemergy, an Ontario company, is extracting and refining the two kinds of fibres in hemp stalks. The long primary fibres on the outside of the stalk (bast fibres) are being processed as a reinforcing material for use in bio-composites; the core fibres are being sold as a highly absorbent, spongy material for use as animal bedding or garden mulch.

According to Wade Chute, a scientist at the Alberta Research Council, opportunities for farmers to sell hemp for fibre use won't occur tomorrow, but will happen within the next 10 years.

Chute says a lack of decortication capacity in Alberta is the biggest challenge toward growing a hemp fibre industry here, but there are other challenges as well.

"You can grow hemp for the grain or grow it strictly for the fibre by harvesting the plants before they flower," he says. "The second option is what's practiced in Ontario for supplying bast fibres to the automotive industry, but the bast fibres from an oilseed crop also have their place in a fibres market."

Though sales of hemp oils and grains are catching on, there are still only a few licensed processors in Canada. Two of the largest, Manitoba Harvest and Hemp Oil Canada, are based in Manitoba but sell their products internationally.

Manitoba Harvest, the company partly responsible for the emergence of hemp as a legal Canadian crop, was founded in 1998 by Martin Moravcik and two friends. In the early 1990s, Moravcik promoted industrial hemp agriculture in North America and organized the Hemp Awareness Committee at the University of Manitoba. The organization lobbied the provincial government for research and development assistance, and obtained some of the first hemp test plot permits from the Canadian government. Their efforts led to the legalization of industrial hemp (hemp with only minute amounts of the drug delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol) in Canada and the first harvest in 1998.

The farmers who grew the 6,000 acres of organic hemp Manitoba Harvest used in 2006 are all shareholders in the company. Their hemp grain is processed in Winnipeg, into a variety of food products sold at more than 3,000 stores across North America, including two major franchise health food markets, Whole Foods and Wild Oats. Their products are also sold in Europe and Japan.

Mike Fata, president and co-founder of Manitoba Harvest, says his company will be contracting for fewer acres in 2007 because of the bumper crop in 2006. Fata says he's been exporting product to the U.S. for eight years and this accounts for at least half of their market.

"There's a lot of talk there about legalizing the production of industrial hemp, but that's still a long way off, even if they decide in principle to go ahead."

Manitoba Harvest's crop comes largely from the area around Dauphin, about 160 km north of Brandon. Though there's been talk and some farmer effort toward establishing a small co-op processing plant for the fibre there, Fata says nothing has yet materialized.

"Some producers are baling and storing the stems, but most are burning the fibre or tilling some into the soil."

Hemp Oil Canada, located in Ste. Agathe, has contracts with about 100 growers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Like Manitoba Harvest, it processes the seed for use in its own food products or for use by secondary processors who use it in foods, health care products and cosmetics. About 40 per cent of their sales go to the U.S., 30 per cent to Canadian retailers and the rest is sold internationally.

Shaun Crew, president of Hemp Oil Canada, says most of the secondary processors who use their hemp oil are small cottage industries, but they also sell to the company that manufactures Dr. Bronner's soaps, considered a staple at health food markets and drug stores since the late 1950s.

Newshawk: CoZmO - 420Magazine.com
Source: The Alberta Express (Canada)
Author: Barbara Grinder
Copyright: 2007 Farm Business Communications
Website: Farm Business Communications


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