New Market For Hemp Straw, Fibre

“What I found surprised me. Canada had little hemp-fibre processing capacity.”

– ROBERT JIN

Plans to build the first hemp fibre-processing plant in North America were announced at a press conference in Gilbert Plains April 6.

Work on the $10-million facility, to be built by Plains Industrial Hemp Processing Ltd., will start this summer, according to Robert Jin, president of the company.

Jin, who is also a partner in a clothing factory in China that employs 3,200 workers, plans to process 40,000 hemp straw bales per year sourced from farmers in the Parkland region.

Jin, who was granted landed immigrant status in May 2009 under the province’s business immigrant nominee program, first came to Canada on a hunt for hemp fibre to supply his clothing factory in China four years ago.

“What I found surprised me. Canada had little hemp fibre-processing capacity,” he said, reading from prepared notes.

INVESTIGATING POSSIBILITIES

Jin and his partners then decided a year ago to investigate the possibility of building their own hemp fibre plant, and built a pilot facility on a farm near Gilbert Plains to test their proprietary technology.

He chose the Parkland region, a hotbed of hemp farming and research that represents the continuation of a long tradition of growing the crop that goes back over a century to the arrival of the first Ukrainian settlers in the area.

“The positive results have encouraged us to proceed with our plan to build a processing plant in the area,” said Jin.

According to Marnie Kostur, executive administrator for the Parkland Agricultural Resource Co-op, construction will begin immediately once final environmental licensing approval from the provincial government is secured.

Two 40-foot ocean freight containers containing two disassembled processing lines have already arrived. Workers from China will reassemble the equipment in the coming months.

SPECIAL DESIGN

Some of it had to be specially designed, she added, because the raw feedstock will arrive in the form of large, round bales. In China, where the crop is grown extensively, there are no balers.

“They don’t bale anything. Usually farmers over there have only an acre or so of land, so everything is hand done,” said Kostur, speaking for Jin, who is not fluent in English.

She added that a chronic shortage of hemp fibre has forced Jin’s factory to cut back on production of hemp clothing, which is in high demand worldwide. The plant will resolve Jin’s raw material supply problems, and produce top-quality fibre.

“He’s come here to look for a very high-quality, consistent hemp product,” she said. “Given the work that the hemp growers in this area have done already, it’s very positive for him. There’s been a lot of groundwork done in terms of varieties.”

MULTIPLE USES

Long fibre from the Gilbert Plains plant will be shipped back to China for use in Jin’s factory, and the short fibre will be made into geotextile matting for uses such as landscaping and erosion control. The hurd, or the pithy inner core of hemp stalks that is left over after processing, will be pressed into pellets for use as heating fuel.

The plant will be built with federal funding of $3.4 million provided by the Community Adjustment Fund of Canada’s Economic Action Plan, and $1.4 million under Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Agri-Opportunities program.

The provincial government has also forked over $500,000 through its Rural Economic Development Initiative.

The rest of the cost of building the $10-million plant will be shouldered by Jin’s company.

Inky Mark, MP for Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette, who spoke on behalf of federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and Lynne Yelich, minister of state for Western Economic Diversification, said efforts to build a hemp fibre plant in the Parkland region have been underway since 1994.

“It’s taken a long time to get here,” said Mark. “This creates another revenue stream for farmers. Now we can use both the seed and the stalk portion. Instead of burning it, you can bale it and make money on it.”

MORE VALUE ADDED

Mark added that having a local hemp-processing plant opens up enormous possibilities for future value-added production, because the fibre can be used to make up to 50,000 different products.

Manitoba’s Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives Stan Struthers recalled how he and the former premier had toured pioneering hemp grower Joey Federowich’s farm to witness the harvest in the late 1990s, and how he had seen a hemp seed press dating from the 1890s that a local farm family had once used to extract oil for making soap.

“I think we forgot how useful a product hemp is,” he said, referring to the ban imposed in 1938 under the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act that was aimed at stamping out illicit marijuana, a close relative of industrial hemp.

In 1998, the federal government lifted the ban on hemp production, and began allowing farmers to import seed and grow the crop under highly regulated conditions.

“We hear over and over, that we’re depopulating, that our towns are shrinking,” said Struthers. “We can offer young people hope and jobs that are based on our economy, and the basis of our economy is farming it’s agriculture. Always has been, always will be.” [email protected]



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