Farmers high on hemp as returns beat canola

Farmers high on hemp as returns beat canola

Strong prices have led to ‘unprecedented’ interest in the crop, says Hemp Oil Canada rep

Man speaking in front of viewscreen.
Kevin Friesen, seed production manager for Hemp Oil Canada and a hemp grower himself, explains how to grow the Prairie’s newest crop at a recent agronomy workshop at the Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie.
photo: Daniel Winters

Hemp acres in Manitoba are set to shatter records again this year as interest in the crop rises to an unprecedented level, the seed production manager for Hemp Oil Canada said last week.

Kevin Friesen told about 30 farmers meeting at the Food Development Centre here that he anticipates 90,000 acres of contracted production this spring, up from about 67,000 last year, and way, way up from just 8,000 acres in 2007. The crop was approved for production in Canada in 1998.

“Normally, people migrate towards hemp when it’s about twice as profitable as canola,” said Friesen, who estimated that a good crop of conventional hemp, at about 40 bushels to the acre contracted at 70 cents per pound will rake in gross revenue of $700/acre compared to about $240/acre for canola.

“It is an easy crop to grow, but you have to be willing to put in extra time and management to be successful,” he added.

In Manitoba, the most popular variety is CRS-1, but Finola and CFX-1 and 2 are the mainstays in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Finola, brought in from Finland in 1998, has the smallest seed, with 1,000 seeds tipping the scale at 13 grams compared to CRS-1 at 17 g/1,000. Finola matures in 100 days, CFX-1 and 2 at 103-105 days, and CRS-1 at 110 days.

Finola is the shortest variety, but with hemp, “height expression” varies according to the latitude where it is planted. The higher the latitude, the taller hemp grows, and vice versa, said Friesen, noting that in southern Ontario, Finola only grows knee-high, but 800 km north of Edmonton, it can reach eight to 10 feet.

Shorter plants are easier to harvest, but taller plants cope better with weeds. It matures according to hours of daylight, so pushing back the seeding date can ensure a shorter crop at harvest.

The herbicide Assure II, already allowed in Eastern Canada, may be approved for use here by spring, becoming the first herbicide registered for use on the crop.

A handful of dual-purpose, grain and fibre varieties have also been developed by the Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers (PIHG), but a market for hemp fibre may still be a few years away due to delays at the Gilbert Plains processing plant.

Jeff Kostiuk, acting diversification specialist with the Parkland Crop Diversification Foundation based in Roblin and provincial hemp agronomy contact, said that it’s still not too late to apply for permission from Health Canada.

Permits are good for one year, and growers need only submit field GPS co-ordinates from Google Earth, proof of consent from the landowner, and agree to a criminal record check.

Only pedigreed seed is allowed because farm-saved seed can spontaneously boost THC levels — the compound that gives marijuana its buzz. Crop samples must be submitted for testing by an approved sampler at a cost of $300 per field, but some hemp varieties such as CRS-1 are exempt from that requirement due to consistently low THC levels.

Seeding is best at half-inch depth into well-drained, warm, moist soil at 8-10 C at a rate of 25 pounds per acre at low fan speed to avoid seed damage. Research shows seed mortality averages 50-70 per cent regardless of seeding density or variety, and best results for grain come with two to 12 plants per square foot due to the crop’s ability to fill in thin spots. Row cropping hemp at 22-inch spacing works well, too.

Hemp is a big plant that is “very hungry” for nutrients, especially potash which goes mainly into the stalks, said Kostiuk. It loves nitrogen, and especially well-manured fields.

Some of the best hemp growers are organic farmers who grow alfalfa for hay for three years followed by silage peas and hemp. The crop, which pays $1.25 per bushel for organic, does well for them because a mid-June seeding date allows for a few weeks of tillage to control weeds.

Disease issues with hemp are minimal. Gophers are the most serious pest.

Harvest is best done while the plants are still a bit green, and many have found that a John Deere 9600 combine with a draper header works best. Knives must be new or in good shape, and setting the apron three to four feet high to avoid the fibrous stalks prevents plugging.

“Don’t put hemp fibre through the combine if you don’t have to,” said Friesen.

Residue can be a headache, he added, but some farmers use a forage harvester to chop up the stalks, which are then harrowed into piles and burned.

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