We’re looking for farming partners in Central and Northern Alberta for a 5-year partnership to grow hemp for food seeds, fibre crops and CBD medicine. The new cannabis regulations are bringing tremendous opportunities to hemp farmers and we’d like to share those with new farmers.
Connect with the XY Hemp Corporation if you want to learn to grow hemp, earn extra income from marginal farmland, transition to organic agriculture, or get into the emerging hemp and cannabis industry.
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The short version is that 2017 hemp crop was overtaken by wild oats and could not be harvested. I’ll tell you the long version to flesh out the story to provide some insights into organic hemp farming and entrepreneurship.
On the morning of Friday, June 2nd, Al and I began seeding the hemp while Chad drove the final stretch from Edmonton to Breadroot Farms. While Al made the first few passes on the field in the tractor pulling the seed drill, I met with our Saskatchewan Crop Insurance (SCIC) Adjuster. Ben from SCIC and I reviewed the weed control and nutrient process implemented on our field. As you may recall, in 2016 The XY Hemp Corporation grew a cover crop of peas and fava beans to fix nitrogen in the soil and control weeds. I described this process to Ben as we looked at the current moisture in the field and discussed the operations that had been completed on the hemp field prior to seeding. The moisture was about a centimeter below the surface, the soil was warm and conditions looked great for the hemp crop.
A few weeks later, Al and Helene sent Chad and I pictures of a beautiful green blanket covering the hemp field. The hemp seeds germinated nicely and covered the field. A few large noticeable weeds such as thistle and plantain were visible but otherwise the crop looked promising. F*$k Yeah!
A few weeks after that, things changed. Grasses started appearing over the hemp plants and the hemp seemed to stop growing, getting stuck at about 15cm to 20cm.
Ever the hopeful farmers, Chad and I continued to aggressively search for someone to harvest the hemp. This was the other major challenge we faced: no one wanted to be paid to combine a 75-acre hemp field. I spoke with every custom combine company and family in Saskatchewan and followed up with all of their recommendations. Given hemp’s reputation as a challenging crop to harvest, our relatively small acreage and our somewhat remote location (even for Saskatchewan), some people I spoke with were offended I even asked. Many were regrettably already completely booked, and some were intrigued and interested, but everyone I spoke with was ultimately unwilling to combine the field. Possibilities such as buying a vintage John Deere, customizing it to harvest hemp, and reselling after the harvest were being seriously considered.
When we spoke with Al and Helene again in early August, I was still hopeful we would find a saviour to harvest the field. However, the outlook on the hemp field was grim. In their assessment, it was worse than our 2015 crop (which had not been meticulously prepared like our 2017 field). They sent along photos that confirmed the disappointment – a field of wild oats rather than hemp.
Killing wild oats is one of the primary reasons conventional farmers use glyphosate. As organic farmers, controlling weeds is something that must be done through careful crop rotations rather than chemical applications. The conditions this year were simply better for the wild oats than for the hemp.
After this devastating conversation, I called in to the SCIC office to initiate our claim. Ben called me back right away and told me he had been concerned about the field, which he passed regularly on his commute, and that he would write his report on the field as soon as possible. His assessment echoed that of Al and Helene: many small hemp plants dwarfed by wild oats, due to dry conditions.
Chad and I are immensely grateful we purchased insurance for this crop. We invested heavily into the preparation of the field, the seeds and the machinery operations required to make it happen. The insurance claim helped mitigated our losses, exactly as intended.
Looking forward, Chad and I are committed to organic farming. We plan to grow hemp on smaller scales to increase our knowledge of growing and learn new approaches to hemp production. We are also still looking for land access in Alberta or BC to allow us to be more active in farming.
We can’t thank Hélène Tremblay-Boyko and Al Boyko enough for their guidance and mentorship. This crop marks the end of our formal business relationship and we have learned so much from each of them. Anyone looking to settle on the land and learn organic agriculture should get in touch with Breadroot Farms ASAP before their land is sold to another young family.
2017 is an exciting year for the XY Hemp Corporation: we will be planting our second hemp seed crop. Last year, we prepared the soil by growing a cover crop (ploughdown crop) of peas and fava beans. This processes added nutrients and organic material to the soil and will hopefully reduce weeds. We’re now ready to seed hemp and reap a healthy organic harvest!
Chad submitted our application to grow industrial hemp to Health Canada in December 2016. Our location was confirmed and land agreement signed in early 2016, so there was no reason for us to delay. The shortened application form was simple to complete and we received our hemp license a few weeks after submission. With our license in hand, we set out to review production contracts for the 2017 growing season.
We requested production contracts from several wholesale seed companies to review their terms. We were pleased with the continued upward trend in organic hemp seed prices. While our primary objective is to grow a health yield of hemp seeds, we are also interested in selling our fibres. Many of the contracts included a right of first refusal for the seed buyer to also purchase the fibres. We requested that clause be removed so that we are free to sell our fibres to the highest bidder. A developing market for hemp fibres is a long anticipated and very welcome opportunity for farmers. Will 2017 be the year of hemp fibre sales?
From May 24 to June 7, I will be in Saskatchewan to seed the hemp field, visit mentors and potential partners and catch up with friends. Our farming partners, Al and Hélène of Breadroot farms, will host us for the two weeks. They are also welcoming a new family to their land this year! This is the start of a new partnership that will see Al and Hélène move towards retirement while mentoring young farmers to continue with organic practices. We are so delighted that their search for long term partners has been successful.
The final step to complete before travelling to Saskatchewan is to arrange for hemp seeds to be delivered to our farm. The production contract we chose, with Hemp Fresh Foods/ Manitoba Harvest, provides us with guaranteed access to seeds. This is because Hemp Fresh Foods are the owners of the Finola variety we will be growing. The team at Manitoba Harvest, including Darryl McElroy, Jennifer McCombe and Clarence Shwaluk, have been extremely helpful to The XY Hemp Corporation, long before we signed a production contract. Jennifer shared her agrology knowledge with us while we were deciding on our cover crop last year and she always keeps us up to date on hemp events on the prairies. In 2015, Darryl tracked down Finola seeds for us when supplies were getting low and seeding was starting soon. From all their hard work and dedication to customer service, we are thrilled to grow hemp for Manitoba Harvest!
The XY Hemp Corporation is back in action this spring, and I’m excited to tell you about our plans for the next two growing seasons. However, we haven’t been on hiatus all winter. In fact, Chad and I spent most of our winter months diving into research projects. After getting majorly inspired at the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance (CHTA) conference in November 2015, I worked on some of the economics behind a series of White Papers published by the CHTA this spring. Through February and March, Chad and I explored hemp processing possibilities by completing market assessments for bio-polymers, bio-composites and cannabidiol (CBD) extract products. There is always more research to do, but in this post I’ll tell you about what we’ve learned so far.
At the CHTA conference in Calgary, Chad and I learned a lot about hemp building materials, CBD extracts and made lots of industry connections. I attended the full three days and was able to attend sessions with Health Canada, and update on US regulatory changes, and several sessions on hemp fibre processing developments. JustBiofiber provided an update on their hempcrete building blocks along with price comparisons to conventional building systems and information on the pilot facility they are building outside Calgary. We also got to learn from researchers at the University of Alberta and the Albert Agriculture and Forestry Bioindustrial Research Branch. The Wednesday morning session with Paul XX of Elixinol was the most highly anticipated event of the conference. He presented the research supporting the use of CBD and hemp oil for a wide array of health issues and diseases. It was a moving and motivational presentation. Throughout the week, we connected with many amazing people in the hemp industry and I offered my support as an economics researcher for the CHTA White Papers on CBD extracts.
After January, Chad and I began working though structured market assessments of several products derived from hemp. In these markets assessments we tried to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about the market size, the value chain (how the product move from raw hemp to final product and how much are the mark-ups at each stage of production), established business models in the industry, a SWOT analysis if we were to enter the market and what our key success factors would be. This process involved understanding the basic science behind some of the more technical products and gathering and organizing information about how existing businesses operate in the market.
We decided to started with the most complex product, bio-composites, to make things easier for ourselves going forward. Based on our research, bio-composites are natural fibers combined with polymers. We are most interested in green bio-composites, which use natural fibers and polymers derived from plants rather than refined petroleum. To start our research we ordered an amazing text book written by the European Confederation of Linen and Hemp and the research organization JEC. It was well worth the investment and helped us understand the language of composite materials, the science behind how they work, how they are made, and current applications in hemp and flax fibers. The text book also included market research and comparisons between the structural properties of hemp composites and traditional composites such as carbon and glass fiber.
Following this we moved on to bio-polymers, the building blocks of plastics derived from plant sources. In this stage we were comparing processes and products derived from a wide variety of natural oils (for example: canola, waste from ethanol production, soy) to plastics derived from hemp oils. This is a new area of research and during this process we reached out to our contacts at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and Alberta Innovates, who connected us with researchers at the U of A who are working on lipids chemistry. Chad and I have both made visits to the laboratory to see samples of the bio-composites being developed and are excited to continue our research in this field.
Finally, we turned our attention back to CBD extracts from hemp. CBD is a polyphenol, like THC, naturally occurring in the hemp plant. The hemp plant is a variety of cannabis sativa that has been bred to have very low concentrations of THC (<0.3%), but in doing so, it can often have much higher concentrations of CBD. There is a lot of interest in the health community about the potential therapeutic uses of CBD, and many products already available online. We reviewed some of the science behind CBD, the methods used to extract it from hemp and the potential market for these products. It is not possible at this time for hemp farmers to harvest or process the parts of the plant that are rich in CBDs. This is one of the reasons why the CHTA wrote its White Papers and has been sharing this information with decisions makers in Ottawa to help change the rules that govern hemp production.
Chad and I have a few more market assessments we would life to complete this year, for biofuels and hemp construction materials. We have started gathering resources for these pieces but have put our work on hold to get our hemp farming process organized for the next two years (more about that in the next blog post). We are also excited to observe and participate in conversations about how marijuana legalization should be structured in Canada, and we’ll be following the research on this topic closely. Bio-polymers and bio-composites are exciting new industrial markets for hemp, and we will be looking for ways to build a business model for those products which fits our desired scale. As always, we couldn’t do any of this without the amazing network we have been building in hemp and the Alberta bio-industry and we look forward to continuing to build relationships with government, researchers and other businesses.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
At the tail end of our trip to Saskatchewan for seeding, Chad and I drove up to North Central Saskatchewan to visit Larry Marshall. Larry has a fairly large operation located near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan where he specializes in organic hemp production. The visit was an excellent professional development opportunity and we learned more than we could have imagined about high-tech organic agriculture and the Canadian hemp industry.
Larry, Chad, and I connected through family friends of mine who I reached out to when we first started investigating the possibility of hemp farming. They referred us to their neighbour, who turned out to be the brilliant farmer Larry Marshall. Larry is a board member of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance and has quickly become our hemp mentor. He has been generous with his time on the phone, discussing everything from the best hemp varieties for different locations to equipment modifications to improve our farming operations. This has been extremely helpful, because although Al and Hélène of Breadroot Farms have a wealth lot of knowledge about organic agriculture — specifically organic wheat and grass-fed beef — they had never grown hemp before this year.
After hearing about our seeding trip, Larry had invited us out to tour his hemp operations. When we arrived at Larry’s place we were fed another amazing farm lunch while we discussed seed drying, field cleaning, and crop rotations. He then took us on a walking tour of his custom machinery, drying process, and seed storage in his yard. Even more exciting, we jumped into a truck and went to see various stages of Larry’s hemp cropping process while we toured several research plots and fields in different stages of crop rotation.
On these research plots, Larry is experimenting with new varieties of hemp and different combinations of beans and legumes to grow following a hemp harvest. Growing different crops to help fix nitrogen and add other nutrients to the soil is called crop rotation. Some crops are grown for half a season then cut up and mixed back into the ground with a tractor pulling a Discbine. This is essentially blending the organic material back into the soil so that it can partially decompose, making nutrients available for the next crop to absorb. Other crops which fix nitrogen in the soil, such as beans, can be harvested and sold, which improves the soil quality and provides additional revenue. The process of crop rotations is crucial for organic agriculture because there is no addition of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides to improve crop yields. The health of the soil determines the quality of the crop.
Larry shared with us his innovative organic agriculture processes and answered all of our questions. He actively works with universities and government research groups to further the progress of the hemp industry. This allows the research done at his farm to be shared for the benefit of all farmers. Larry’s use of crop rotations, custom equipment and homegrown effective microorganisms was truly inspiring. This knowledge will help us improve our process this year during harvest, next year as we choose the best crop to grow following the hemp, and into the future as we incorporate more innovative organic production techniques, such as effective microorganisms to ward off diseases and improve yield.
We learned so much more than we could have imagined by spending a few hours with a passionate and intelligent hemp farmer. We are extremely grateful for Larry’s generosity, taking the time to spend the afternoon with us and share his innovative organic agriculture processes, all the while patiently answering our nearly endless stream of questions. After putting our seeds in the ground at Breadroot Farms it was very motivating to see how our operations could potentially grow.
Chad and I will be returning to Larry Marshall’s farm in the late summer to see the progress of some of his new hemp varieties. These visits allow The XY Hemp Corporation to learn from experienced producers about the intricacies of the hemp plant and the Canadian market place. Larry is very familiar with all aspects of the business (regulations, industry development, and plant science, just to name a few) and has helped us connect the dots on the path to becoming hemp entrepreneurs. As we become better, more efficient hemp farmers, The XY Hemp Corporation will be able to maximize the benefits of growing hemp. Accessing mentors like Larry Marshall is one way we’re building our capacity to run a holistic agri-business.
March 25, 2015 The XY Hemp Corporation completes a significant step in our business plan: signing the crop share agreement with Breadroot Farms.
The crop share agreement is a hybrid between a traditional crop share contract and a production agreement. This flexibility has allowed us to craft a truly unique partnership with our organic producers, Hélène Tremblay-Boyko and Al Boyko. We are growing 60 acres of hemp this summer and sharing input costs and profits from the sale. This structure allows The XY Hemp Corporation to share risk, costs and access mentorship from experienced organic producers.
As young professionals, C and I have limited experience with agriculture. An 8-month co-op term at the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture exposed me to different land access arrangements for young farmers. These alternative models of land access include incubator farms, land linking, co-operative farming and farmland trusts. Breadroot farms is actively searching for young agrarians to take over sustainable operations on their farm through land linking initiatives such as FARMLink. Al and Hélène have also set aside land for a farmland trust called Farmland Legacies. Our joint venture is a blend of land linking and co-operative farming.
In exchange for a land rental fee, a 30% share of seed sales and reimbursement for machinery operations, Breadroot Farms is providing The XY Hemp Corporation with 60 acres of pristine organic land and the mentorship of organic farmers with over 20 years of experience growing field crops in Saskatchewan. The location is perfect for hemp seed sales: close to the Manitoba border where the majority of hemp processing occurs.
Al and Hélène have grown a wide variety of field crops, but have never grown hemp. C and I were able to apply for a license to grow industrial hemp from Health Canada with permission from Breadroot farms. This application has been received and processed and we anticipate our license to be issued at the end of April, 2015. We have also accessed the support of Larry Marshall, an experience organic hemp farmer in Northern Saskatchewan. With these three incredible resources, C and I will learn so much about farming this summer.
The crop share agreement is the first contract on a series that sets our dreams into motion. Our next major milestone will be a production contract with a seed buyer. The XY Hemp Corporation and Breadroot Farms are currently reviewing several contracts and are very excited to move forward together!
P.S. My pitch video is still up for votes online, please watch and give it a little “heart”