By Angela Lovell
In the past, persuading farmers to grow hemp was a bit of a hard sell. It was challenging to harvest and there was no established local market for the baled fibre. Keenly aware of these issues, a group of Alberta entrepreneurs (that included farmers) knew they would have to develop a completely different grower program if they were going to get farmers onboard with growing hemp for the 40,000-square-foot decortication facility they planned to build at Bruderheim, Alberta, 40 minutes northeast of Edmonton.

“Our model is seed, spray and walk away,” says Aaron Barr, CEO of Canadian Rockies Hemp Corporation (CRHC). “We supply the varieties and our agronomist will go do field selection and fertility recommendation. Farmers seed our hemp, do an in-crop herbicide application only if needed, and they’re done. We come in, do the cutting, raking, baling and hauling.”

Making it as easy as possible for farmers to grow the company’s single-purpose hemp (known as young hemp fibre) has been at the heart of its business model and is proving popular with local farmers.

“Farmers don’t need to buy any new equipment or figure out how to grow this crop,” Barr says. “They seed it with their conventional seeder and are essentially done. It’s been well received for farmers to grow this crop because we’ve taken harvest operations off of their plate. It has turned out to be a good fit for large grain farmers because many are overcapitalized on their seeding; they can seed more acres than they can combine, so if they don’t have to worry about doing any of the hemp harvest, the operational advantage is significant. It allows us to get more acres, but also to keep the product quality and consistency the best we can.”

The CRHC facility began processing hemp fibre in early 2023 and when it reaches full capacity, it will be able to process 50,000 acres of hemp a year, which it will source from within a 150-kilometre radius. The company has developed its own line of patented harvesting equipment that can harvest 10 to 15 acres of crop an hour. Barr and his team travelled the world to learn about different decortication technologies, which they had to adapt to process Canadian-grown feedstock.

“Our fibre is a lot tougher than that grown in Europe, for example, so there has been a lot of innovation and technology development on the decortication side that is allowing us to get high throughput capacity with minimized down time,” Barr says.

Many benefits for farmers

With increasing disease pressure from clubroot in canola, that is often grown in tight rotations with wheat, farmers are always looking for additional crops to add to their rotations. That’s especially true in northern areas of the Prairies, where shorter, cooler seasons mean they can’t grow corn or soybeans. Young hemp fibre provides them with a great option because it’s a photosensitive plant that is well suited to longer days and matures quickly (about 65 days to harvest).

Barr also points to six years of extensive plant and soil research data that they have collected that has shown an average bump in yield of 20 per cent in crops that follow hemp in the rotation.

Hemp has a huge taproot. It goes two to three metres down, so it helps to break up hardpan soil, demineralizes far-down nutrients and makes them more available for the crops that follow. “Because we do the harvest, because of the soil health and soil carbon benefits, and because we’re seeing such an increase in production on crops that follow, it’s a win-win for farmers,” Barr says.

What bodes well for the hemp fibre industry in Western Canada is the versatility of the crop that produces essentially three different byproducts that all have multiple uses, with more emerging all the time.

About a quarter of the zero-waste facility’s production is hemp bast fibre that is used as batt insulation by the construction industry and in pulp, paper and textiles. Uses in the automotive industry are also beginning to emerge. 

Hurd is the second raw material produced that has an established use in animal bedding, but another fast-emerging market is for Hempcrete, a building insulation material that is now approved for use in residential buildings in the U.S. 

Finally, the remaining screenings and dust are captured and used in the oil and gas industry for absorption of spills as sawdust replacement.

Why it’s hemp fibre’s time

Some farmers will remember past (failed) attempts to get decortication plants up and running across the Prairies, so what’s changed? A lot, Barr says.

There are now a number of new hemp fibre varieties available that are better suited to the western Canadian Prairies, with higher bast fibre content and higher yields, many of them coming from other hemp growing regions like Ukraine, Romania and Poland.

“The issue with growing hemp for seed or grain is they did not want tall plants or fibrous plants, so all the varieties that were existing before were the exact opposite of what we were looking for,” Barr says. “We’ve had to research and develop fibre varieties.”

There is also a huge appetite for bio products to replace things like single-use plastics and other fossil fuel-based materials. The performance characteristics of the strong bast fibre, which has a high cellulose content, means it can compete with traditional raw materials.

“We are seeing big demand on bio composites, so single-use plastic replacements and more plant-based sustainable textiles and building materials,” Barr says, adding that demand is going to spur the development of more processing facilities across the Prairies. 

“We are competing against wood pulp, cotton, fibreglass, polyester and those other types of raw materials, and we can sustainably produce alternative products year after year,” Barr says. “We are talking with some automotive and textile manufacturers that are looking for volumes that would be 10 of our facilities just for one manufacturer. We are trying to model our Bruderheim facility, maximize it, and be able to duplicate it across the Canadian Prairies. Our goal in the next 10 years would be to build 10 more facilities.”

More production will provide more options for farmers to grow this low-investment crop that provides them with good returns, agronomic benefits and, in the near future, the opportunity to claim carbon credits. CRHC has done life cycle analysis and data collection over the last five years to quantify the carbon sequestration efficiency of the hemp crop. 

“Farmers will have two opportunities for carbon credits for young hemp: one is soil organic carbon and the second is biomass carbon,” Barr says. “We’ve done data collection on over 20,000 acres and we’re averaging around five tons of CO2 sequestered per acre in the soil. That’s a significant amount of soil carbon going back in, which is also promoting in-soil health.”

Above ground, farmers are averaging two-and-a-half to three tons of dried, baled biomass per acre that has a 45 to 47 per cent carbon concentration in the stalk. 

“We can take that hemp stalk, put it into a building material and we’re long-term storing carbon,” Barr says. “We are very close this year to have monetized carbon credits able to compensate farmers for growing this crop.”

The future looks bright for hemp

“Young fibre hemp provides opportunities for farmers to expand rotations and promote soil health, and it’s something that we don’t just export,” Barr says. “This is a product, a raw material that we could all use. It’s such a versatile product that farmers see the tangibleness of it. They can grow it and feel that piece of paper that has their fibre in it. Farmers are risk adverse and want to see things proven, and now that we’ve had some great years of being able to grow crops at scale, harvest it and be self-sufficient and selling into the market, the farmers are really getting behind this.”