The First Harvest

From September 6th to 13th, Chad and I travelled to Saskatchewan to see our hemp field mature and help with the harvest. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans and we were unable to take the hemp off the field. However, we were able to reconnect with our farming partners, gain new knowledge about organic farming practices, brainstorm and explore our business expansion plans, and experience the beauty of the prairies in the Fall.

Sunset at Coyote Ridge (Breadroot Farms)
Sunset at Coyote Ridge (Breadroot Farms)

Once again, we came upon our field after a long day of travel. Finally able to see and touch the work we had put into our venture, we explored the hemp field before going to greet our farming partners, Al and Hélène.

A man, outstanding in his field.
A man, outstanding in his field.

As we expected from conversations with Al and Hélène, there was quite a lot of wild oats in the field. The hemp had not grown into tall, bushy trees like we had seen online and in our dreams, but there were many plants in each square meter and all were producing seeds.

Facing east on the hemp field, a cold and rainy Monday.
Facing east on the hemp field, a cold and rainy Monday.

Throughout the next two days it rained intermittently and Chad and I tried to be as helpful as possible, moving the yearlings, and helping in the kitchen and the yard. The rain and the cool weather put most of the major farm tasks on hold, so we spent a few afternoons working on our business research.

Organic, grass fed, adorable yearlings
Organic, grass fed, adorable yearlings

By Thursday the weather was clear again, but the ground needed more sun and heat to firm up before heavy machinery could resume swathing the grains and hay or running the combine through the fields. Chad and I decided to take the opportunity to drive up to visit Larry Marshall. When we called, we were so delighted to find out it was the first day they would be combining the hemp. This meant we would get to see the mature hemp fields and watch Larry’s harvest process. When we arrived at Larry’s farm, one of his sons took us on a tour of the fields we wanted to investigate: the test varieties, the “best” piece of land, and a field which had wild oats throughout, like our own.

Welcome to the Jungle
Welcome to the Jungle

The test varieties were being grown for different seed characteristics and were planted next to the Finola variety both Larry and The XY Hemp corporation had chosen to grow. Finola has been bred as a dwarf variety, which makes it much easier to combine with conventional farm equipment. The height of the new varieties was the first characteristic we noticed, but upon closer inspection we saw that these larger plants also had much larger seeds. The trade off was larger seeds and different nutritional properties but more difficulty harvesting such tall plants.

Next we stopped in at “Grandma’s House”, Larry’s field with the best soil and drainage. Here we saw mutant Finola plants, seven feet tall with several seed heads. These plants benefitted from the extra nitrogen in the soil near the garden where there had once been a pig barn.

Mutant Finola at Grandma's House
Mutant Finola at Grandma’s House

Larry had told us a few weeks before that one of his fields had struggled with weed competition from wild oats, so we wanted to compare this field with our own. This field was along a narrow strip next to a road and the Finola looked quite similar to our own: shorter, pale, and with many wild oats throughout. We asked about the growing conditions when this had been planted and if this field was known to have a weed problem. The soil was a little sandier on this particular field, and it had rained the day before seeding, which may have supported the wild oat growth.

Wild Oats and Hemp, it can happen to YOU!
Wild Oats and Hemp, it can happen to YOU too!

Our last stop was at the field where Larry was combining. They had decided to start harvest early, so the hemp was still quite wet (24.8% moisture) but with so many fields, you have to start at some point. Larry also has a very sophisticated drying process, which makes it easier to harvest the seeds early. Chad and I squished into the cabin of the combine so we could chat with Larry while he harvested the hemp. It was really fun to watch the process in action and to ask a million more questions! It was during this ride that we realized that our hemp’s short stature was most likely due to insufficient nitrogen in the soil.

Hemp likes a lot of nitrogen, about 100 pounds per acre, but we had taken soils samples the morning of seeding, so we had not known the soil content before planing the hemp. We knew that Al and Hélène had taken care to rotate the crops on the field and that there had a been a manure plough down (where the cattle graze on the stubble then their manure is worked into the soil) in the last three years, but the precise nitrogen level were unknown until a few weeks later. If our hemp had run out of nitrogen, it would have been easier for the wild oats to grow taller, especially given the wetter conditions in the later half of the season. We resolved to check the soil sample results when we returned to Breadroot that evening.

We said goodbye to Larry, took a sample of the hemp to help calibrate our moisture meter, and drove back to Canora.

Like flying over a tiny boreal forest
Like flying over a tiny boreal forest

Things were starting to get busy back at Breadroot farm. When we arrived home late at night, Al was out swathing the wheat and didn’t get home until around 10pm. Throughout the rest of the weekend Al was able to swath more of the wheat and  begin combining. By Sunday morning, the weather had turned cold and wet and operations were on hold again.

Al and Hélène have a very demanding and diverse organic farm. They specialize in exclusively grass fed organic beef, which they sell through The Farmer’s Table, a farming co-operative that takes orders online and delivers fresh product to Regina and Saskatoon once a month. They have been organic for almost 20 years and all of their farming operations are certified organic. Aside from the hemp, this season Al planted fields of wheat, barley and oats and cut organic hay to feed the cattle over winter. Hélène also has a large garden in the yard which supplies her with many of the vegetables she needs for the winter. They manage these diverse priorities this without any additional help on the farm.

We are extremely grateful that Al and Hélène have taken time to mentor and host us during their two busiest seasons, seeding and harvest. Chad and I have learned so much this season about organic agriculture, running farm machinery, marketing agriculture products and maintaining a mixed farming operation. If you recall, we met Al and Hélène through Farm Link, a website designed to match established farmers with new farmers. Their goal is to transition their operations to young farmers committed to sustainable or organic agriculture. This will allow them to step back form active farming while ensuring the land they have worked so hard to rehabilitate stays in sustainable production. Chad and I feel extremely lucky that while the long term goals of The XY Hemp Corporation and Breadroot Farm differ, that we have been able to work together to learn about hemp farming.

While we were unable to help with the harvest during our visit this fall, the hemp seeds have since been taken off the field and are safe in an aeration grain bin. The seeds will be moved a second time and a sample will be sent to Farmer Direct Co-op, the organic co-operative with whom we contracted our harvest. Farmer Direct Co-op will then arrange to pick up, clean and market the hemp seeds.

Al and Hélène remarked at the ease of combining the hemp. Although the plants were quite loud moving through the combine, the seeds thrashed out quite well and appear clean and in good shape. We are all excited to know the final yield, although we recognize that it is less than we had hoped. As they say in farming, “next year”.

As we plan for next year, we are taking soil samples now to determine which fields are most suitable for the nitrogen hungry hemp plants. Chad and I also hope to attend the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance annual conference in Calgary, to keep up to date on developments in the industry. We will take everything we have learned and the connections we have made to push forward into next year and beyond!

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