By Garrett Simmons
Southern Alberta Newspapers – Lethbridge
It’s not a crop most associate with southern Alberta.
Flush with sweet Taber corn and cash crops like sugar beets and potatoes, our irrigated bread basket is also becoming known for a crop which is relatively new on the landscape — hemp.
“The Lethbridge area and southern Alberta, east to Bow Island, is a hub for Alberta in terms of hemp cultivation,” said Dr. Jan Slaski, who was speaking Tuesday morning at Farming Smarter’s Field School, held just east of Lethbridge.
Slaski, the team lead in the crop development and management section of Ecosystems and Plant Sciences for Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, told those gathered the hemp industry has shown steady growth in Canada, as he highlighted a recent milestone.
“The hemp industry has been growing rapidly over the last 5-6 years, with 20-30-per-cent increases annually,” he said. “Last year, we exceeded 100,000 licenced acres.”
Most of that hemp is grown on the Prairies, as Slaski estimated between a quarter to a third of all production in Canada is in Alberta. Some of that is due to efforts by companies like Rowland Seeds in Taber, which is growing about 8,000 acres of organic hemp per year, and breeds the finola variety, a variety which accounts for 70 per cent of the hemp acres in Alberta, according to Slaski.
Canada is the largest hemp-producing nation in the world, he added, though other nations are close behind, with China in particular hot on Canada’s trail.
But the future is indeed bright for the industry here in southern Alberta, as Slaski added there is a company which is in the process of setting up shop in Lethbridge. That company already has a building in the city, and if everything goes smoothly, will be in the business of producing biocomposites using hemp.
Another company, Stemia, has long been rumoured to be building a plant near Chin, where hemp will be used to make construction materials, as Slaski said that process is also moving along. He also pointed to a similar company out of Calgary, which is also manufacturing building materials using hemp fibres.
“This is a really exciting time for the industry,” said Slaski, who added textile companies are also putting a focus on hemp, as he mentioned a Quebec-based uniform manufacturer, Logistik Unicorp, is testing Technology Futures-grown hemp as a textile fibre, in a potential move away from cotton.
Company officials will soon be visiting the Technology Futures fibre-processing facility in Vegreville to learn about the process, as Slaski added there are hemp growers from Lethbridge currently hauling loads of hemp to the facility.
Entrepreneurs have also been exploring the facility to examine the fibres being created, as Slaski mentioned the small facility is prepared to process hemp on a semi-commercial basis to support the biocomposite industry.
A number of hemp trials are also underway in Lethbridge, as Farming Smarter’s Field School participants had the opportunity to view numerous varieties, some of which have been created by Technology Futures.
One such variety, called silesa, has reached heights of three metres in a short growing season in the Vegreville area, he added, as he stressed the difference between those varieties grown mainly for fibre production, and the varieties like finola, a grain type.
He added hemp grown for grain production is also a booming industry, as companies like Manitoba Harvest are attempting to increase their contracted acres in areas such as southern Alberta.
“If you go to a grocery store, what do you see?” asked Slaski, who pointed outstores now sell hemp hearts, hemp protein and hemp oil with regularity. “When I started working with hemp, you could see hemp in health food stores on the bottom shelf covered in dust.”
That’s not the case anymore, as combined with the creation of food products, hemp use as a natural alternative to fibreglass, and in composites to make hot tubs, boats and auto body panels, means the industry should continue to grow.