Alvin Ulrich usually refers to flax when he talks about the potential of Saskatchewan’s fibre industry.

But he said the same opportunities that exist for flax fibre exist for hemp.

He told the Saskatchewan Hemp Association annual meeting that there needs to be more agronomic research, testing of different processing methods and quality monitoring to kick-start the fibre industry.

“Hemp is even further behind (flax) in that regard because it’s such a new crop.”

In the past five years, Saskatchewan has gone from producing 11 percent of Canada’s total crop to 29 percent last year.

Provincial growers seeded about 1,100 acres; Canada-wide the total was 3,780 acres.

Manitoba continues to lead the country in hemp production. Arthur Hanks, SHA manager, said that is likely to continue.

While most production is for seed for grain and health food markets, he said other possibilities are intriguing.

“We could fraction off and get higher value out of the crop.”

Because hemp is taller and contains more fibre than flax, Ulrich said the potential in that market is great.

He said a trend back to natural fibres for industrial uses has people taking a closer look at hemp.

It is also a good fit for the textile and clothing industry.

Most of that industry is based on cotton. Cotton’s short, fine fibres lend themselves to spinning and 90 percent of the world’s equipment is set up for that crop. The other 10 percent is for wool and silk.

Ulrich said it is now possible to cottonize flax and hemp at a reasonable cost.

“The results are looking more and more promising,” he said of the research. “There will be a switch. (The cloth) will be cooler and much more comfortable.

“Saskatchewan could be a low-cost supplier of medium and even higher quality fibres.”

Pure linen textiles represent the premium market. Ulrich told the meeting that the price ranges from $1,800-$5,000 a tonne for long fibres.

“The volume is never going to be big but it’s a premium market,” he said. “The Chinese are particularly keen to get long fibre for knitwear.”

Hemp fibre also has a home in the plastics industry.

About half of all plastics are reinforced, usually with glass, but hemp and flax fibre can be used in many applications, Ulrich said.

It is also desirable in insulation, because it can be shredded and allowed to decompose if it isn’t needed. It also works in absorbency products, geotextiles to stop water erosion, the pulp and paper industry and biofuels.

Ulrich said the fibre industry is constrained mainly by a lack of knowledge, vision and a determination of what’s possible. There is no natural fibre specialist or development centre in Saskatchewan.

“Every major European country has one or two centres,” he said.

The industry also needs a protocol to measure quality.

“All stalks are not the same.”

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Greening up plastic with hemp
Thursday, February 27, 2003
Karen Briere, The Western Producer
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