Prairie farmers need another profitable crop for their rotations to relieve the pressure on canola to pay the bills.
Hemp might be that crop.
Canada legalized the recreational use of cannabis a year ago, unleashing a torrent of investment and news coverage, but for broadacre farmers, that is important only in that it also added to the slow but steady momentum behind efforts to expand the industrial hemp sector.
Production of cannabis varieties, focused on intoxicating THC for the recreational consumption market, is largely a greenhouse affair, which is an important part of the agriculture industry but with few if any implications for those who make their living growing such crops as canola, wheat, pulses and barley.
But field production of hemp for cannabidiol (CBD) oil, cooking oil, protein, fibre and animal feed might some day soon become an important part of prairie agriculture. Likely the best chance of success will come if the industry can capitalize on the revenue potential of every part of the plant — seed, flower, leaves and stalk.
Canada already has world leading experience and expertise because the federal government legalized industrial hemp production more than 20 years ago.
Pioneering growers and processors had to overcome many challenges. Though production was legalized, the industry faced a high level of regulation, including limits on what parts of the plant could be harvested and processed.
Proponents had to undertake the expensive and time-consuming job of getting food approvals, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Generally Recognized as Safe recognition.
Markets failed to grow as quickly as expected and there were years of serious oversupply and financial losses. A planned hemp fibre processing plant for Craik, Sask., never got off the ground.
But there were also hard won successes as well as valuable research and development advances.
Now new opportunities are bursting forth, including a changing regulatory environment in Canada and the United States and increasing public interest in the health and ecological attributes of the hemp plant.
Health Canada approved the harvesting of hemp flowers and leaves, the source of cannabinoids, in 2018.
The U.S. farm bill passed in late 2018 removed hemp from the list of federally controlled substances allowing the production of industrial hemp.
This has given confidence to entrepreneurs in invest in several processing ventures.
On the fibre side of the equation, BioComposite Group in Drayton Valley, Alta., uses hemp fibre in pressed fibre board, car parts and grow mats into which micro-greens, sprouts and wheatgrass can be seeded.
Airdrie, Alta., is home to Just Biofibre, which uses hemp hurds and other components to make hempcrete interlocking construction blocks that resemble giant lego blocks that are light, nearly fireproof, have good insulating properties and are a carbon sink. The blocks are being used in an ecologically innovative self-storage and office building under construction in Kelowna, B.C., powered by solar energy and incorporating many other green technologies.
Canadian Rockies Hemp is building a 40,000 sq. foot fibre decorticator plant and CBD processing facility at Bruderheim north of Edmonton capable of processing more than 45,000 acres of hemp.
Another potential fibre market is linked to growing consumer pressure against single-use plastics and synthetic fibre products such as disposable wipes. Hemp fibre can be used to create compostable wipes.
The future economic sustainability of hemp will also be enhanced if the industry can get governments to approve the feeding of hemp byproducts to livestock.
Several other CBD oil extraction plants are also planned across the Prairies and in other provinces, and likely the CBD component of the industry has the potential initially to be the biggest economic driver.
But there is still much that is unsettled.
Changing regulations on industrial hemp in the U.S. is a blessing and a curse. Its huge size could spark huge investment into innovation and marketing that would vastly increase the potential market for CBD health and hemp food products. But it could also result in most of the economic benefits being captured by the U.S.
Regulation remains an issue. Health Canada is expected to rule soon on whether to allow CBD products to be designated natural health products that can be sold over-the-counter without a prescription.
Various American states have rules regarding the sale and use of CBD products but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still gathering information about it and has delayed making guidance on over-the-counter products.
Although interest in CBD products appears huge now, there is a danger of it being overhyped. We’ve had a recent example from the vaping craze how a few bad health outcomes can quickly shift public attitudes and regulations from encouraging to restrictive.
Nevertheless, industrial hemp’s future is at a turning point with untold potential, especially if every part of the plant can be used.