Farmers Explore Hemp Option

August 11, 2011 – VEGREVILLE, Alta. — When hemp scientist Jan Slaski asked people on a crop tour who was familiar with hemp, he got a few chuckles.

The running joke linking industrial hemp with its recreational cousin, marijuana, has caused more than a few problems for the crop’s development.

Hemp is one of Canada’s oldest crops, first cultivated in 1606. Early pioneers relied on the crop for cloth, rope, paper, oil and food.

In the 20th century, development of cotton, synthetic fibres and the 1938 Drug Act, which banned production and growth of industrial hemp, killed hemp as an agricultural option.

But the repeal of the 60-year ban on the growth of industrial hemp 13 years ago has set the stage for hemp’s return.

“This is a great, great opportunity for Canadian farmers and industries who want to use hemp for industrial purposes,” said Slaski.

The U.S. government has not lifted its ban on production of industrial hemp and Slaski believes the head start will give Canadian farmers and industry a healthy lead in the development and production in the growing worldwide demand for hemp.

Slaski’s program at Alberta Innovates Technology Futures (formerly Alberta Research Council) in Vegreville focuses on three components: gene discovery, plant breeding and the agronomy of hemp.

Using non-genetically modified tools, they are searching for genes associated with fibre production. In their classical breeding program they hope to evaluate germplasm and the cultivars that perform well across Canada. They are in the process of registering Silesta, a high fibre variety.

They are also looking at the agronomy.

“Farmers are not familiar with the new production techniques available,” said Slaski.

Questions regarding seeding rates, chemical application, drying and harvesting must be answered if farmers are going to grow the crop.

A seeding rate of 50 pounds per acre, or 300 seeds per square metre, seems ideal for producing a good crop. Too few seeds create plants with thick “poplar-like” stems. Plants seeded at a higher density have thinner stalks that produce more of the long fibre wanted by the industry.

Already, hemp is in demand by textile manufacturers that make garments for the army and Canada Post.

Some hemp varieties produce coarse fibres, while others produce “ladies’ underwear” quality.

“When it’s harvested, its density affects the industrial end use,” he said.

Scientists have also developed hemp plants that are monoecious, where both male and female plants are on the same stem, which helps even out harvest.

Most hemp plants are diecious, where the male and female plants are on two different stems and mature at different times. The weather early in the season dictates the ratio of male and female plants.

At harvest the plant is cut and left for retting, or rotting, to allow bacteria to help break down the fibres and make harvest and fibre production easier.

Slaski estimates the 12-acre crop will yield 10 tons of dry stems per hectare.

“The fibre industry is our driver.”

Danny Shewchuk of Tofield, Alta., came to the crop tour to learn more about fibre production. His family has grown hemp for two years: a 65-acre crop and a 150-acre crop the following year as a potential crop diversification project.

Shewchuck said they soured on the crop when the seeds sat in the bins for months.

“We had trouble finding a market. Until they get that problem settled, we didn’t want to commit more acres,” he said.

The goal of feedstock is to secure fibre of desired quality and quantity. Without this, big industry is not interested.

Slaski said hemp production is a chicken and egg scenario. At the peak of hemp production in 2006, farmers seeded 48,000 acres of hemp, mostly for seed, or what Slaski called a “juvenile” market. In 2010, about 26,000 acres were seeded.

By developing a strong fibre market, with the help of the Alberta Biomaterials Development Centre, Slaski hopes to even out the highs and lows of hemp production.

“Farmers will grow it if they can make money at it. Before they can grow it they want to know what to do with it, who will buy it (and) where do they sell it,” he said. By Mary MacArthur. Source.

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