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Hemp 101 for growers

It’s now well established, with three potential markets and increased agronomic support

Most combines can now handle hemp without any problem.

[UPDATED: Mar. 4, 2021] There were challenges for early hemp growers — limited markets, combining troubles and complex licensing requirements, but these problems have been reduced or eliminated. And while demand is not unlimited, it’s stable and growing every year. So if you’re looking for a profitable, easy-to-produce crop that’s also a good rotational option, you might want to give hemp a try.

Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance (CHTA) statistics show Canadian hemp harvested area starting at 5,300 acres in 1998 and trending to 144,525 acres in 2020. The CHTA predicts 181,000 this year and more than 341,000 in 2025.

Of last year’s acres, about 8,100 were for pedigreed seed production, 27,000 for organic oilseed, 76,000 for conventional oilseed, 14,000 for fibre and 20,000 for chaff/biomass (flowers and leaves for cannabinoid extraction.)

“There is lots of opportunity for new growers and it’s the acreage for fibre that’s really expected to grow in the short term,” says CHTA president and CEO Ted Haney.

He says primary fibre processors produce ‘bast’ (used in insulation, erosion-control mats and textiles) and ‘hurd’ (used in hempcrete, industrial absorbents and kitty litter). Bast and hurd also go into paper, and hemp fibre screenings can be pelleted for energy production, or the cellulose in the screenings can be extracted and used for manufacturing explosives, sealants, paints and other products. In February 2020, multinational Georgia-Pacific and Canada-based Bast Fibre Technologies entered into a global licensing agreement for a suite of patents related to the application of bast fibres in various non-woven products and processes.

Swathed or straight-cut fibre is baled, preferably into square bales. Bast Fibre Technologies, Eko-terre and Biocomposites Group are the main fibre buyers in Canada, and Haney says each has various requirements. Some will want the fibre to undergo winter ‘retting’ — exposure to moisture and weathering — while others want a dry, fluffy fibre.

CBD oil, the non-psychedelic cannabinoid product widely touted as a treatment for pain relief, sleep disorders and a host of other medical conditions, can also be extracted from hemp flowers and the small surrounding leaves. Flowers are harvested with a dual cutter (scythe at bottom and swather head at the top) so that fibre is collected at the same time. When producing hemp for seed, cannabinoid-rich chaff can also be collected from the back end of the combine.

However, Haney says the flower harvesting is a relatively small portion of the current demand. “It’s going to take some time for CBD to be a significant part of the industry.”

Organic demand growing

CHTA advisory board member Darrell McElroy, who is also seed production supervisor and agronomist at Manitoba Harvest/Fresh Hemp, says his company wants to contract new growers in 2021, especially for organic hemp.

“We had about 38,000 acres contracted in 2020 and for the first time we had more contracted organic acres than conventional,” he says. “There’s a really good U.S. market for organic hemp oil and hemp hearts. People are realizing the nutritional benefits of hemp and sales have been growing exponentially.” We were worried about the impact of COVID but there hasn’t been any ramifications as far as sales go.”

McElroy says it takes three years to convert conventional production to organic, but it can be possible to start up organic production from pasture or hay land in one year. “Start your paperwork as soon as possible,” he recommends.

If planting hemp after pasture or hay, he says soil tests are a must. Good nutrient levels are needed for a good hemp crop, especially for organic production. “We really like hemp to be grown after a legume. Any volunteers are easily cleaned out and there is no problem with allergens. There’s a potential for gluten allergens from wheat and barley volunteers, and they are hard to clean out. That’s a problem because we have to sell a gluten-free product.”

Six-foot-one Manitoba Harvest/Fresh Hemp summer student Julian Hyde is dwarfed by the company’s new Pembina variety just registered last year. photo: Manitoba Harvest/Fresh Hemp

Like other contractors, Manitoba Harvest provides support from variety selection to storage. The company generally recommends one of three varieties depending on the farm. For fields with a high weed seed bank, for example, there’s a taller variety called CanMa.

McElroy says growers should have no combining problems. Most of the new combines work fine with hemp, he says. Even some that are 20 years old worked fine and some companies made changes to their designs 10 years ago.

“We can advise about your combine or you can always get custom combining. Also, if you don’t have one, you will need a grain drying system or an aeration system with supplemental heating.”

Haney says broadleaf weed control is generally done pre- and post-emergent, and that  “hemp is a fantastic competitor once a foot tall.” Regarding disease, McElroy says that sclerotinia is the biggest threat and although no fungicides (or insecticides) have yet been registered for hemp, “I’ve never seen a field with a significant sclerotinia problem. There have been a few issues across the Prairies with cutworm where reseeding was needed. But both our conventional and organic contracts specify no use of in-crop protection products.”

Getting started

The first step in growing hemp is to go to the Health Canada Cannabis Tracking and Licensing website and submit your licence application. Health Canada has also published an Industrial Hemp Licensing Application Guide, which Haney says is very helpful. “Your application will be processed as we approach planting. Apply for your licence now even if you want to grow hemp starting next year. Then you will work out if you want to be primarily an oilseed/straw/flower producer, a straw/flower producer or a dedicated flower producer. It’s important to get sales contracts signed before you seed. What and how you will grow depends on your interests, what will work well for you and your buyer’s specifications. The nice thing about hemp is that it’s generally last seeded and last harvested, so it’s convenient.”

Haney says seed companies, buyers and neighbours are the new hemp grower’s most important sources of support. You can also attend the 2021 CHTA new grower webinar in November

“We go over everything. We had 300 attendees in 2019 and 100 attendees in 2020.”

Production resources


*Update: The photo caption with Julian Hyde was updated to indicate the variety of hemp he was standing beside. 

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