Hemp

Lazer Inc. has stepped out of its normal comfort zone with the addition of iHemp used for food.  Industrial hemp is still the newest crop on the farm and is sold under contract into a more specialized market channel, which poses unique challenges and opportunities.

Since its legalization, hemp has sparked much interest among Canadian farmers. The Government of Canada has been very supportive of Canada's re-emerging hemp industry through changes in legislation and regulations, and through market development funding.  As with many new crops, there has been considerable fluctuation in hemp production area.  In 1998, the first year of Health Canada opening up the licensing process, about 241 licenses were issued. These licenses grew almost 5,927 acres (2,400 hectares) of hemp for industrial use. In 1999, the number of applications to grow hemp jumped dramatically to 545 with the area of hemp production increasing six-fold to nearly 35,086 acres (14,205 hectares).

Much of this production was driven by the promise of the development of large scale industrial fibre plants in Manitoba, which encouraged farmers to plant substantial hemp area in anticipation of the processing needs of these plants. None of the plants materialized, leaving farmers with large inventories of hemp and straw. This led to a decline in production.

Today, hemp is enjoying a renaissance, with the global hemp market becoming a thriving, commercial success. More than 100 Canadian farmers are currently taking advantage of the vast market potential for hemp and are growing this crop in most provinces, primarily in central and western Canada.

The regulatory system for the commercialization of industrial hemp is strict; however, it is crucial to protect the health and well-being of Canadians, to abide by Canada's international commitments against illegal drugs, and to contribute to the production and export of safe food products

Like flax, wheat, corn, canola, and other major cultivated species, hemp is a crop that can be grown for food and non-food purposes. Whole hemp seed is composed of approximately 45 percent oil, 35 percent protein and 10 percent carbohydrates and fibre. As a result of the numerous nutritional benefits, many new food products containing hemp seed and its oil are finding their way onto the Canadian market, including pasta, tortilla chips, salad dressings, snack products, and frozen desserts.

Growers tend to be clustered in loose alliances and co-operatives, or are geographically close to processing facilities in order to keep transportation costs low.  The first challenge for hemp growers is to find a buyer who can guarantee, through contract, the purchasing of their harvest.

Hemp processors investigate and promote viable applications of hemp products in order to create new markets domestically and abroad. The re-introduction of hemp as a legal crop and the development of markets is a slow process and the hemp sector will need to expand carefully to ensure that supply and demand are harmonized. As the hemp sector continues to grow and as new technologies are applied to production and processing, more commercial possibilities will become feasible.

Hemp's agronomic and environmental attributes are remarkable: it can be grown without fungicides, herbicides and pesticides it absorbs carbon dioxide five times more efficiently than the same acreage of forest and it matures in three to four months. Hemp can be used to create building materials, textiles, clothing, inks, and paints and has potential use in other non-food products. These advantages are in tune with the environmental and health preferences of today's North American public.

Industrial Hemp (iHemp) is made up of varieties of “Cannabis Sativa” that contain less than 0.3% Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). It is an annual broadleaf plant with a taproot and is capable of very rapid growth under ideal growing conditions. The female flowers and seeds are indeterminate, meaning that there are both ripe and immature seeds on the same plants at the time of grain harvest. Fibre hemp plants will grow to 2-4 meters tall without branching. In dense plantings (i.e.: seed drilled) the bottom leaves fall off due to lack of sunlight and the male plants die back after shedding pollen, generally 4-5 weeks into the growing cycle, lasting approx. 1 week.

The stem has an outer bark that contains the long, tough bast fibres. They are similar in length to soft wood fibres and are very low in lignin content. Hemp rope, textiles and clothing are made from these fibres. The core contains the “hurds” or “Shives” (short fibres); similar to hard wood fibres and these are used for building products, particleboard (MDF), pet bedding, as well as plastics.

For grain production the plant may branch and reach heights of 2-3 meters. Tall plants do not mean more grain and shorter plants are preferred for combing. In well structured and well drained soils the taproot may penetrate 15-30 cm deep (12”). In compacted soils the taproot remains short and the plant produces more lateral, fibrous roots.

Growing:

Hemp matures to fibre in 60-90 days and to grain in 110-150 days. IHemp requires lots of moisture; approx. 3-400mm (10-13”) of rainfall equivalent. If that amount of rainfall does not occur during the growing season it is important to make use of early soil moisture and to get early ground cover to reduce surface evaporation, as well as maintain good weed control. About ½ of this moisture is required during flowering and seed set in order to produce maximum grain yields. Drought during this stage produces poorly developed grain heads and continued drought results in low yields of light grain. During the vegetative growth period iHemp responds to daytime high temperatures with increased growth and water needs. After the 3rd pair of leaves develop iHemp can survive daily low temperatures as low as -0.5 degrees Celsius for 4-5 days.

Harvesting: 

Combining iHemp gives a special challenge to both the combine and the operator. In tall varieties large quantities of plant material are put thru the combine. iHemp straw contains very tough fibres that tend to wind around the moving parts. Fine fibres work into bearings, causing friction that can lead to bearing breakdown and combustion. These factors cause heavy machinery wear, high maintenance costs and a great deal of time loss and frustration on the part of the operator. 

iHemp seed is harvested when the seed begins to shatter. At this optimum harvest time about 70% of the seeds are ripe at about 22-30% moisture. Later combining increases grain losses due to shattering, bird damage and lower quality grain. Mature fibres tend to wrap more tenaciously around moving parts on the combine.