Hemp’s possibilities are endless
Hemp’s possibilities are endless, says producer
“Hemp is a rugged plant. It doesn’t need much: living soil, clean water and some sun. It’s not flashy. It has no showy flowers, but the slender stalks and bristling leaves protect a wholesome treasure: hemp seeds.” YouTube video: The Story of Hemp.
That has indeed been the experience of Larry Marshall, an organic farmer near Shellbrook, Saskatchewan, who has been growing hemp for 15 years. He has seen demand for the crop grow significantly over that time.
“The market is really strong for it as a health food,” said Marshall, who was featured in the video, from his farm. “There are hemp hearts, which are dehulled seed; the protein powder and the oil. You press the oil out of the seed and the remaining fibre is left for powder.”
Hemp contains Omega 3, 6 and 9 oils, and “it’s better than flax in terms of the balance of omega oils,” he added. Most commonly, people will put the seed on their cereal or yogurt, and the protein powder is popular with vegetarians and body builders, he said.
Because of the health benefits, demand for hemp is increasing by 30 per cent per year, which is quite phenomenal growth, said Marshall.
“Farmers have learned how to grow bigger crops than they have in the past, so yield has been higher, especially on the conventional side: you put more fertilizer to hemp and you get more seed. It’s quite an amazing crop in that way,” said Marshall.
Most hemp is contracted by processors on an acreage basis, but they have pulled back on contracts this year due to the recent overproduction. Therefore, acres will be down from last year, when 100,000 were sown in Canada — 40,000 of those in Saskatchewan.
“Not very much is contracted (this year) on the conventional side,” said Marshall. “Now, the organic side, there’s all kinds of demand for that, so there is an increase in organic acres, but there still won’t be enough to fill demand.
“We definitely can use more production facilities. It seems like the demand is there, but there’s only so much that can be processed. They’re going pretty much full swing, the processors.”
At present, there are three major processors in Manitoba, one in Quebec and two in British Columbia. There are a few smaller ones as well, including Bioriginal Food and Science in Saskatoon, while Farmer Direct in Regina contracts acres and sells to processors.
By far the largest amount of Canada’s hemp goes to the United States, where a conundrum exists: farmers cannot grow it, but processors can process it. One of the U.S. hemp products is a pill containing the cannabinoid in the hemp leaf, said to help with seizures; that product is sourced from Europe and Australia.
“The Americans are very close to growing it; they’re doing the research, and they really want to grow it. How it will affect us, I don’t really know,” said Marshall. “The U.S. is our biggest market by far. Probably 80 per cent of the hemp gets exported to the States.”
Growing hemp in Canada does come with some restrictions. According to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance, hemp is regulated by Health Canada, because of its classification as a cannabis plant. Growers must be licensed and are allowed to plant certified seed only.
But there is certainly a market: retail sales of Canadian-derived hemp products are estimated at between $20 and $40 million USD annually, says the Alliance.
“It has amazing value-added potential,” said Marshall. “There’s all kinds of processing that can be done from the seed… and from the leaf. We have an amazing crop here; not only is it super-healthy, but for organics, it’s one of the best crops there is. It’s the fastestgrowing. I can actually seed it as late as July 1 and still get a crop.”
Indeed, it grows “like a weed” — bouncing back from hail and cold weather.
“The variety we grow was developed in Finland, which is north of the 60th parallel,” said Marshall. “You could grow it in the Yukon, no problem. It’s light sensitive, so the farther north you are, the faster it grows; and it’s amazing how much faster it does grow.”
And Marshall sees far wider opportunity. Hemp fibre is being investigated as a material for building blocks for homes, as just one example.
“I see potential — we call it the next Cinderella crop. If we can use the whole plant, that will be amazing.”
Because of its health benefits, demand for hemp products continues to increase by 30 per cent annually.
Larry Marshall farms hemp near Shellbrook with his son Josh.