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Hemp future wound up in fibre

CARBERRY, Man. - Manitoba farmers are poised to harvest between 25,000 and 30,000 acres of hemp this fall, more than double the province's hemp acreage last year, said Keith Watson, diversification specialist with Manitoba Agriculture at Dauphin.

Saskatchewan has 5,000 to 10,000 acres this year and Alberta 3,000 to 5,000 acres.

The bad taste left by a previous hemp experience is being changed by three legitimate buyers for the grain and new markets developing for the fibre.

In 2000, a U.S. company encouraged producers to grow more hemp but then closed before the first harvest came off.

"In Manitoba, we have Hemp Oil Canada and Manitoba Harvest buying grain. In Alberta, we have Rocky Mountain Hemp," Watson said.

"These are substantial contractors and buyers. They've been around for a few years now and producers feel comfortable dealing with them. This tells us that hemp is becoming a valid grain crop for the parkland region.

"And now, as the market for hemp fibre develops, we'll see more commercial end users for the whole crop."

Until now, the main hemp buyers have been the grain buyers. However, a number of manufacturing companies have recently started or will soon begin using hemp fibre.

Manitoba has one factory putting a 50 percent hemp fibre biocomposite into its finished countertop products and a second company is poised to start using the fibre in 2007.

"We need to get 10 or 12 of these smaller fibre markets rolling before we tackle the big ones. Once they're up and running, then we can talk to Ford and General Motors," Watson said.

A few optimistic producers have already been baling their hemp fibre in anticipation of those markets opening soon. However, he conceded that most of it is still burned.

"And that's a real shame. It's a waste of a raw product that should have a viable market."

Watson said that with hemp grain selling for 50 to 55 cents per pound, it is profitable now, so the fibre market will be a bonus in the short term and could provide economic stability in the long term.

"A typical Manitoba hemp field gives the producer 600 to 800 lb. per acre of grain. So the net is usually comparable to or better than canola. It's a low input crop. You've got the same fertility requirements as wheat and seed costs less than canola," Watson said.

"A few years ago, a lot of people had the idea you need lots of nitrogen. People talked about 300 lb. per acre. But all the trials we've done in Manitoba show that 120 lb. nitrogen is the highest possible rate at which you can see any response at all. So really, the nitrogen you put down for wheat works just fine for hemp."

Watson said there is generally no need for herbicides because hemp is such a tall, fast growing plant that it shades out the weeds. They don't have a chance to establish.

It's also a good drought-proofing crop.

"We've had a very dry 2006 in our hemp growing areas, but the hemp fields are all uniformly good. Dry weather doesn't seem to bother hemp.

"What's above ground is proportional to what's below ground. It's a tall plant, so the roots go deep for water. It's a real scrounger for water and for nutrients."

Although conventional crops immediately following a hemp crop have all been good so far, Watson said more research is needed into how much water and nutrients the hemp plant actually take from the soil.

He speculated that even though hemp consumes a lot of water from deep in the soil, the rotting roots form channels to funnel water and nutrients back into the soil once the crop has been harvested.

Watson said areas like the parkland where wheat and canola, are the primary crops are ideally suited for hemp.

"We can't grow beans and sunflowers or special crops up here in these northern areas with our shorter growing seasons. But we can grow good hemp crops.

"We have several growers who've had to seed after June 20 several years in a row now. Even with that very short season, they still get 600 lb. of clean grain (hemp) per acre. At 50 cents per lb., that's $300 per acre for a late-seeded crop."

The harvest problems of the late 1990s have been overcome. Growers are combining crops that are three or four metres tall. The complete combine modification costs about $4,000.

Watson emphasizes that a producer should not risk planting hemp without a contract since there is too much chance of getting stuck with a bin of grain and no buyer.

Further, he cautions that the high number of acres in production this year may lower the demand for hemp in 2007.

For more information, contact Keith Watson at 204-622-2009.