Farmers looking for an alternative crop that can pay a decent return, in exchange for more management may want to look into producing hemp.
It is a crop that has been around for quite a few years, and in the past I’ve heard stories “well, I can grow it, but now what do I do with it?” But, Rod Lanier, a farmer near Lethbridge, Alta says after six years of producing hemp he considers it a valuable addition in his flax/durum/wheat/canola/pea crop rotation.
Lanier is growing about 600 acres of dryland hemp in 2013. He harvests the seed which is used in the health food market producing a product called hemp hearts….(sprinkle it on your corn flakes and you’ll live forever)…and then he comes along in a second operation and bales up the straw which is finding a home in the ever-expanding fibre market….
At a recent crop walk field day at his farm south of Coaldale, Lanier says there is definitely a learning curve in producing and marketing hemp. “I would tell farmers first to start out by trying a few acres to see how it performs,” says Lanier. “You need to learn how to grow it and you need to start researching the markets, but it is a crop with a lot of potential that provides a good return.” He says there is a limited market for the straw in Alberta…the main markets are the West Coast, the U.S. and Quebec.
Lanier figures his input costs for hemp range between $250 and $300 per acre and that includes combining costs. In six years he has found the seed yield variable ranging from 700 to 1,200 pounds per acre, but he can market that into the health food market for about $1 per pound. He says the straw has good value too in the fibre market, but that market is still in development. The hemp straw can be processed into a wide range of products from fabrics, to materials for car manufacturers, to building materials. “I can’t give away all my secrets, but there are markets out there for the straw, you just have to investigate,” he says. And he also says there is nothing wrong with leaving hemp crop residue on the field “it has a huge soil carbon benefit”.
The field day was organized by the Alberta Biomaterials Development Centre and their focus to help develop an industry around biomaterials such as hemp straw, flax straw, wood chips and other crop residues. ABDC has a pilot hemp straw processing facility at Vegreville. And there is a tour of that facility July 17. Alberta produces about 20,000 acres of hemp, which is the largest production region in North America.
The first step in growing hemp, which is part of the Cannabis family, is to obtain a permit from Health Canada. That process takes about 90 days. Once the permit is received, Lanier can buy certified seed. On the agronomic side he treats hemp much like canola. It needs good fertility “it is a nitrogen pig”, and he seeds it shallow.
Lanier seeds it later — he had three separate seeding dates this year from early to late May — and he estimates it will be ready to harvest about 100 days after seeding.
He makes one pass with the combine equipped with a stripper header to harvest the seed…the seeds can be dry, but the stalk is still green. And then he comes back later to cut the standing stubble and bales that.Hemp has potential in emerging markets
Lanier says he is still learning how to grow hemp. He hopes to fine tune management to even out the yield, and he may even try part of the crop under irrigation next year hoping to hit the reported yield potential of up to 1,800 pounds of seed per acre.
“I find it exciting to work with a new crop,” he says. “You have to learn how to grow it and research your markets, but for the most part hemp is used in relatively high-end markets, so the value is there if you can make it all work.”
For more information on the Alberta hemp industry visit the biomaterials development centre website at: www.albertabiomaterials.com.
Lee Hart is a field editor for Grainews in Calgary, Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]
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