Portage farmers not so high on hemp

By Angela Brown, Portage Daily Graphic

While plans for a new hemp production plant in Dauphin are moving ahead, crop producers in the Portage la Prairie area may not be jumping on the bandwagon so quickly.

Although there may be more reasons for farmers to grow hemp, it will be on a limited scale.

"Growing hemp isn't for everybody. It's a challenging crop, but there will be some opportunity for some guys," said Chris McCallister, who farms north of Portage.

The $20-million hemp project, Parkland Biofibre Ltd. in Dauphin, has recently received a $4-million boost from the Manitoba government. The project is expected to be complete in about two years. The facility will turn 23,500 metric tonnes of hemp straw into home insulation and animal bedding each year.

McCallister, who has produced hemp for the past 5 1/2 years, grew 100 acres (40 hectares) of hemp in 2007 to sell the grain to an Edmonton buyer.

Initially, he grew hemp grain for pedigreed seed, but, after finding there was no market for the seed, instead he sold the grain for the production of hemp oil for human consumption.

Unfortunately, McCallister found the market to be saturated this year, so he did not grow the product.

In the past, McCallister has grown hemp only for the grain as there had not been a market for the fibre.

"That's why the hemp plant will be nice, because I will be able to move my fibre somewhere," he said.

As a drawback, McCallister noted hemp is a difficult crop to harvest.

"I am not sure I can manage more than 100 acres in a year," he said. "The fibre is so tough I can't get it through my combine."

MacGregor-area producer Lorne Hulme used to grow about 80 hectares of hemp for the grain to be crushed to make hemp oil and to be hulled for the meat as a human snack item.

However, Hulme stopped growing hemp about three years ago because the market was small and unstable, he said.

He noted shipping hemp straw to a plant in Dauphin would be costly.

Also, the farmer questions whether a hemp plant will eventually materialize.

"They have been talking about building a hemp straw plant for four or five years now," Hulme said. "To be very honest, I'll believe it when I see it."

Shawn Cabak, the Portage-based farm production adviser for Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI), does not expect the hemp market to be taking off in the Central Plains region any time soon due to the costly nature of shipping the product by rail.

"The plant is strictly for the straw, and the cost to get it there is not cheap," he said. "It's a distance, and we still have the seed to sell, too. Usually, the seed has higher value than the straw, for most crops."

Cabak said any farmers who have grown hemp in the Central Plains region would produce the crop for the grain portion only and would burn the straw.

Don Dewar, president of Parkland Biofibre Ltd., said the new plant will provide a buyer for hemp producers in the Dauphin and Interlake regions where farmers cannot grow other crops, such as soybeans, successfully.

He said farmers in the Portage area have more options in crop production and may decide to stick with beans, grain, corn and soybeans, rather than trying to implement hemp in their rotations.

"It all depends on the economics," said Dewar. "Farmers will grow what makes them money."

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