If we were being fair to early history and our potential, we’d have a green hemp leaf instead of red maple on our flag—just don’t confuse the stuff with marijuana.
“We’ve gone a long way towards demystifying hemp,” says Dr Jan Slaski, an Edmonton-based researcher and program leader at Alberta Innovates with 14 years’ experience working with hemp. “When I first started talking about hemp, people would laugh and ask, ‘So you smoke your T-shirts?'”
Hemp was no joke to pioneers, though. The crop, grown and used by people for more than 10 000 years, was brought to the region that would become Canada in the 17th century. Homesteaders ate the seeds for protein, used the oil like WD-40 and made the fibrous stems into clothes, rope, sails and paper. It was so important to early survival that you could be fined for not growing it on your property. Hell, you could even pay your taxes with it for more than 200 years in the United States until the early 1900s.
The main difference between industrial hemp and marijuana is the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content. In Canada, industrial hemp can’t have more than 0.3-percent THC—while marijuana has THC levels of 10 percent or more. In other words, you’d have to smoke a lot of T-shirts to get high from hemp.
Despite this crucial distinction, North American lawmakers made hemp illegal in 1938 in an effort to stop marijuana use. Slaski says the patent for nylon as a textile and new technology to make paper from wood—hemp was used for paper for millennia—were cynical industry influences that helped rob fields of one of history’s most important and useful crops.
It took six decades, and the concerted efforts of Canadian advocates, for industrial hemp to become legal again in our country in 1998. You do need to apply for a permit and pass a criminal-record check, but hemp-growing is the only licence in Canada that you don’t have to pay for, Slaski notes.
It’s still against the law to grow and process the stuff in most of the United States—although it’s fine to possess and import hemp products. And that’s good news for Canadian farmers: 80 percent of all hemp produced for food gets exported, with the vast majority going to the US.
Now, the Canadian prairies are seeing a phenomenal boom. Slaski says industrial hemp acreage has seen an annual increase of 20 to 30 percent each year for the last six years. Last year Canada hit a record 100 000 acres of hemp, a sharp spike from just 8000 acres as recently as 2008.
Alberta has gone from a tiny fraction of growers to a powerhouse. Alberta Agriculture stats show that in 1998, the first year industrial hemp was made legal, our province grew only 94 acres, or 1.6 percent of Canada’s crop. By 2011, that number ballooned to nearly 16 000 acres—a full 40 percent of the nation’s output and the most productive single province.
And Alberta is being eyed by the industry’s top players for further growth. Manitoba Harvest, a hemp-seed company in business for 17 years, is pushing into our province in a big way.
“Last year was our biggest expansion year in Alberta,” says Clarence Shwaluk, the company’s director of farm operations. “Right now, the majority of our production is in the irrigation belt between Medicine Hat and Lethbridge … there’s good climate and good soil there.”
The vast majority of hemp grown in the province is for food. Shwaluk was in Edmonton recently at the Organic Alberta conference, trying to spur local organic farmers to grow the crop for the company. (Shwaluk says there isn’t enough supply to meet the demand for organic hemp seed products.) Manitoba Harvest and Hemp Oil Canada are the biggest names in North American hemp edibles, contracting out most of the acres grown in Canada.
“The profit is very good for farmers,” Shwaluk adds. “We’ve got more demand from people wanting to grow it than we approve.”
It’s open-minded consumers who are driving the boom. Slaski, one of the country’s pre-eminent hemp researchers, says four or five years ago it was nearly impossible to find hemp food products. He says he used to go into specialty health-food stores and the hemp seeds would be on some obscure back shelf, covered in dust.
Now you can buy seeds and oil at Superstore or Costco, enjoying prime shelf real estate. There’s even a company called Liquid Chicks making a hemp vodka in Grande Prairie.
“It’s because ordinary people, not foodies or health nuts, are buying it,” Slaski says. “They want this perfectly balanced protein: it’s 30 percent protein and 40 percent fat. I have hemp protein powder in my morning smoothie.”
Locals, like Ric Rosboro from Edmonton company Hemp Hollow, are tapping this market. You might have seen Hemp Hollow at Edmonton farmer’s markets, selling its own line of hemp sprays, seeds, oils, toothpaste, sunscreen and deodorants. Currently, the company buys its raw hemp from a growing co-op in Manitoba but Rosboro says Hemp Hollow is interested in growing its own crop in the Edmonton area.
There are already industrial hemp crops as close as Devon, just southwest of the city. Rosboro says he has plans for Hemp Hollow to open a hemp food-processing plant east of Leduc as early as this June.
“The building is already pre-constructed,” Rosboro says. “We have a line on a [hemp seed] huller from China; we’ve designed our building to hold it, so we can do the hulling right here. There are other people who have hemp in the area, and we can hull their seeds. There’s going to be a new player on the block—and that’s us.”
Hemp as food, though, is only just scratching the surface. Slaski works out of the Alberta Biomaterials Development Centre in Vegreville—a joint venture of Alberta’s agricultural and environmental departments and Alberta Innovates Technology Futures—where he’s developing the next generation of Canadian hemp. Primarily a plant physiologist and agronomist, he tailors seeds for the northern prairies. His research has led to a crop that can grow four metres in 90 days in Alberta—when it’s hot, his hemp plants can grow up to 15 centimetres a day.
Hemp is the second-fastest growing plant on the planet, behind bamboo. Why is that useful? Because the real future of Canadian hemp is in the fibre, Slaski says.
There are two kinds of hemp fibres, he explains: long fibres on the outside of the stem, used for textile applications, and short fibres within that look like broken wood chips. The short fibres, which account for three quarters of the stem’s biomass and have been mostly useless until recently, are where hemp gets really interesting.
Those fibres can be used to make a product called hempcrete, a mix of water, lime and the short hemp fibre. The product can be used to pour walls or make building blocks with excellent R-values. Slaski says there is a Calgary company that’s going to require 10 tonnes a day of short hemp fibre for biobuilding products.
And the short fibre can be made into something called a biocomposite. Think of the armrests in your car—that’s a biocomposite, but it’s likely made with glass fibre. This can be turned into snowboards and skateboards, luggage, seats, sporting goods and a dizzying array of other consumer products. A hemp biocomposite, Slaski says, is 30 percent lighter than glass, doesn’t shatter and is recyclable.
This makes it extremely attractive to car manufacturers. Indeed, German luxury automakers already use hemp biocomposites in their vehicles. Slaski says there is a hemp biocomposite company outside Lethbridge set to manufacture parts for Ford and Toyota, and it’s moving in manufacturing equipment “as we speak.”
And Slaski confirmed that investors for a company called Stemia Group are moving forward on a $32-million fibre-processing project in southern Alberta. This facility will reportedly process hemp to be used in the construction, automotive and paper industries.
In 2012, the Alberta government announced a $938 000 investment in a hemp-fibre plant in Leduc County that would be used to make textiles. However, officials with the municipality could not confirm that any work had been done on the project since the funding announcement.
If all this fibre processing were to come online, Alberta would be the undisputed king of North American hemp. And farmers would have huge incentive to grow, since they could sell the seeds as well as the stems.
In his job as an agronomist, Slaski visits farmers to talk with them about hemp: the past, present and the future.
“Sometimes I’m talking with the old Ukrainian babas in the Vegreville area,” he says. “And they remember and point to their fields and say, ‘When we were young, we were growing this crop here.”
And, grandma, it will probably grow here again.