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2017 marks The XY Hemp Corporation’s third year in farming and second hemp crop. Chad and Kayleigh traveled to Saskatchewan to seed the hemp with Al and Hélène of Breadroot farm. Kayleigh provides a quick update on how seeding went this year.
I arrived at the Farm on the afternoon of Saturday May 27th, 2017. On my way to the home quarter, I stopped to check on the soon-to-be hemp field and saw mostly black soil. I got a warm welcome from Al and Hélène when I arrived at their home and we enjoyed a beer on the front deck. The wind was a bit unforgiving, so we cut cocktail hour short to warm up inside.
I worked on my computer most of the day Sunday, as Hélène had announced that we were going to tag and immunize the calves on Monday. The cows had all finished calving the day before I arrived and it was time to identify all the babies and give them their first vaccination. Monday morning I joined Hélène, Al, and Jonathan to round up the cows and calves. This was the closest that I have ever gotten to the livestock! The process involved placing an ear tag on each calve and injecting them with one dose of vaccine. I recorded each calves’ number and the date and our team of four finished before lunch.
Tuesday afternoon I helped Hélène plant the lettuce and corn in the garden. Last summer, there were some extra peas and fava beans left over from our green manure ploughdown crop. Al was able to plant these extra seeds in two sections of the garden to provided some extra nutrients and organic material. The corn, another nitrogen hungry crop, was planted where the peas and fava beans were ploughed-in last summer. Hélène also plants her corn in the traditional “Three Sisters” grouping: peas, corn and squash are all planted close together to feed and protect one another.
On Wednesday I went out the take pictures of the weeds emerging in the hemp field. The weeds emerging at this stage could provide some indications about the soil: thistles grow in tight soil with little air, while yellow flowered weeds thrive in sulfur depleted soils (pg. 65, Barber, 2014) . In the evening, I cleaned out the seed drill when Al finished seeding the wheat. This signalled that we were getting closer to preparing the hemp field! After emptying the wheat from the seed drill, I helped Al move all the machinery over to the hemp field. It was time to confirm that we were ready to seed!
Wednesday night, Chad and I discussed our recent soil samples and the stages of the hemp field. We completed a successful ploughdown crop the year prior, including grazing a small heard of organic cattle on the land. The hemp field had been cultivated and harrowed once, and the weeds had emerged a second time. There was rain at the beginning of the week, and a long stretch of clear weather ahead. Our hemp farming mentor had suggested this precise crop rotation and assured us that even if the soil test didn’t indicate available nitrogen, it was there, mineralizing in the soil. Chad and I affirmed to one another that the hemp seeds had everything they needed to succeed. I left a note for Al on the breakfast table confirming our decision to proceed with the two final machinery operations: rodweeding and harrowing.
Thursday morning, Al left early to get started on the rodweeding. It was the hottest day yet, 30 degrees Celsius and clear skies. I worked inside on my computer and called potential custom harvesters about the fall hemp harvest. In the late afternoon, Al came in to declare a tire had gone flat on the rodweeder. He had a spare in a junk equipment pile hidden behind some trees and he loaded the generator in the truck to power an impact wrench. I came along to pass him tools and help move vehicles.
These breakdowns always take longer than expected to repair and have unforeseen challenges. I learned this lesson fixing Austin Minis on the side of the road in Saskatchewan. This was a much larger tire to remove and replace, located between sharp ploughs and harrows. I am small enough to get into these tight spaces, but not strong enough to free rusted bolts. There I was, lying in the dirt in my lululemon pants, holding wrenches in place while Al used levers and raw determination to unscrew 30-year old bolts. We managed to remove the large weights that keep the wheels from bouncing, and had almost freed the flat tire when a single bolt refused to come free. After 30 minutes of trying various strategies, we returned to the farm for a grinder. By grinding down a lip on the wheel, I was able to get a wrench in position so that it wouldn’t slip free and Al released the stubborn bolt. In another 45 minutes, the new tire was installed and Al was ready to finish the last hour of rodweeding left on the hemp field.
The forecast for Friday was mixed: heat and thunderstorms had been predicted throughout the week but the day started muggy and overcast. By the time I got up, Al had been out harrowing the hemp field for about two hours. Chad was driving in from Saskatoon and the possibility of seeding the hemp was becoming more and more real! I met with a Saskatchewan Crop Insurance adjuster in the hemp field just as Al was finishing the harrowing. Over lunch, we decided to fill the hopper with the hemp seed and start seeding in the afternoon.
Chad arrived at the farm just as a parade of vehicles was heading out to the hemp field. Al was driving the small case tractor, used to pull the seed drill, which was full of fuel. Hélène was carefully pulling the hopper of hemp seeds in the John Deere Tractor and I was following behind to pick-up Hélène and bring her back to the house. When we all arrived at the field there were hugs and handshakes then we jumped up on the seed drill to finish adding the hemp seeds. Ready to get into the activity, Chad offered to join Al in the tractor to drive the seed drill. They returned for dinner at about 8pm with 45 acres complete!
Saturday, June 3rd, was overcast and dreary but we were joyfully excited to finish seeding the hemp! Chad joined Al in the tractor again and jumped out to move large rocks and check how much hemp was left in the seed drill. With just seven acres left to seed, I came out to take pictures and see if there was anything they needed. In the afternoon, we helped Al move tractors to new fields and cleaned the remaining hemp from the seed drill. The sun came out and it was a hot windy day. I was grateful for the moisture in the soil and the straw from the cover crop holding our soil down against the strong winds.
My mantra for this year is “strong relationships and healthy harvests”. It was a pleasure to nurture our relationship with Al and Hélène of Breadroot farm by participating in all the activities on their farm. We are so grateful for their mentorship and partnership in our endeavour. I look forward to visiting them again at harvest in September for a healthy harvest!
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.