Canada has taken on a leading role in industrial hemp production since the crop was legalized in 1998.
Initially it was grain production that took off, with food products like hemp hearts.
Other possible uses include fibre production — particularly for novel products that don’t require highly refined fibres — and nutraceuticals like cannabidiol, which became a possibility following cannabis legalization in 2018.
But now Canada is staking out a new leadership area in the hemp sector: genetics.
Why it matters: As new uses emerge for the crop, so does the need for new varieties that meet these needs, providing a new opportunity for hemp market diversification.
Just as the crop is still defining its market, it is likewise comparatively early days for Canadian-based variety development.
Jeff Kostuik, director of Hemp Genetics International (HGI), noted that hemp variety development in Canada is only 10 to 12 years old. The early days of Canadian hemp saw varieties imported from areas like Eastern Europe and, at the time, were largely focused on fibre, the expected focus of the crop when it was first introduced.
“We had these very tall cultivars,” Kostuik said.
It soon became obvious, however, that production in Manitoba was going to be more about the grain. The food market became the driving force behind the hemp sector, led by companies like Manitoba Harvest (now folded into Fresh Hemp Foods). The company remains the largest contractor of food hemp acres in Canada.
If Manitoba hemp was going to be all about the grain, variety selection had to follow suit. Instead of tall plants, suited for decortication and the production of long fibres, the industry wanted nutritional value and grain yield. Height, in fact, was a liability when it came to harvest, and a much shorter variety, able to be harvested with a farmer’s existing equipment, was preferred.
“We found that putting a 13-foot crop through a combine could be done, but not without a lot of headaches and bloody knuckles,” Kostuik said. “The effort, especially from our side and others, was to get shorter varieties. Trying to maintain yield. Trying to keep the seed head in the top part of the canopy.”
The sector found what it was looking for in varieties like Finola — originally developed in Finland and exclusively offered in the U.S. and Canada through Manitoba Harvest. It was short, developed at northern latitudes, developed specifically for grain and yielded well. It became the first oilseed variety approved in the EU and in Canada.
It has also remained by far and away the most popular variety in the country, despite new, homegrown varieties hitting the market and the emergence of new markets looking for different genetic traits. About 26,238 (or almost 48 per cent) of acres registered nationwide by Health Canada last year were planted to Finola.
Much of that, according to Kostuik and Kory Lulashnyk, general manager with the Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers (PIHG) co-op in northwestern Manitoba, is driven by Manitoba Harvest’s preference for it.
Clarence Shwaluk, director of farm operations with Fresh Hemp Foods, said Finola is their preferred breed, although the company promotes three main varieties, and several others that are recently registered.
“(Finola has) been really good for us,” he said. “It’s been a real good workhorse. One of the real benefits of it is that it’s very easy to harvest. It’s a short variety and it yields well and it gives us some real good advantages in processing.
“That said, there’s a lot of work going on in the background and we’re receiving all sorts of requests to look at new varieties and see if there’s anything that works for us,” he added.
Growing a promoted variety does come with premiums on the contract, Shwaluk said.
It is, however, an old variety, he acknowledged, and the company is “actively watching” for new genetics that might fit with their business.
As of 2018, Manitoba also reflected Finola’s popularity. Almost 2,900 acres of Manitoba’s 11,500 registered acres that year were Finola, the most of any variety grown that year.
The following years, however, have seen the encroachment of new genetics, and one variety in particular. While Finola is still king nationwide, Manitoba’s numbers in 2019 and 2020 gave more preference for Katani, another grain cultivar also pitched for higher CBD content and registered in 2015 by HGI.
Finola accounted for about 2,600 (or 21 per cent) of the just over 12,500 hemp acres registered by Health Canada in the province last year, just under the 2,900 acres (or 23.5 per cent) accounted for by Katani.
Those wanting to bring hemp in new directions may be looking for something very different in a hemp crop, while those looking for synergies — selling different parts of the same hemp plant to different markets — may also run into variety troubles.
For Lyall Bates, whose Gilbert Plains company, Hemp Sense, first made its name in low-quality hemp fibre products like animal bedding, short varieties don’t make the cut.
The company has since expanded and now seeks to use every part of the hemp plant, with a product list ranging from the original fibre products to pet food additives and hemp hearts (a market largely cornered by Manitoba Harvest). Birdseed, a market Bates hopes will help draw grain that fails to make grade for human use, is incoming. The company was also among those attempting to tap into CBD, although Bates has since said that work is on hold.
Bates said the company decided to branch into the food market specifically so they could offer farmers multiple markets to sell hemp into, although he expects grain to make up only a small share of the business.
With those versatile needs, the company is looking elsewhere for their preferred genetics.
Hemp Sense has done significant work with PIHG on variety selection, Bates said.
Canda, registered through PIHG in 2010 as a dual-purpose grain and fibre variety, has thus far emerged as a favourite. At 10 to 12 feet tall, Bates estimates that the variety yields about a tonne and a half of straw per acre, along with 1,000 pounds of grain.
“It gives a good supply of seed for the farmers that can be sold and then also it gives you lots of fibre for the process that we use for all our products,” he said.
In terms of synergy, he said, most of the hemp grown around them is sourced through PIHG, and so offers no problem, although the company has had to turn away some farmers from further afield, who are growing grain-focused cultivars. In some of those cases, he noted, straw is simply too short to merit the harvest and transport.
Canda made up about 450 hemp acres in Manitoba last year.
As of 2020, most hemp in Manitoba was still being grown for grain, although fibre and CBD showed signs of closing in. Health Canada reported just over 6,900 acres of grain hemp, while flowering heads, leaves and branches accounted for just under 6,000 acres. About 1,500 acres were grown for fibre and just under 1,000 acres grown for seed, although the federal agency stressed that a single field could be registered for more than one market.
The previous year — the first full year that Canada legally allowed hemp to be harvested for CBD, registrations aimed at that nutraceutical actually outstripped registrations for grain (9,100 acres compared to 5,400), while fibre accounted for 3,560 acres. Of those acres registered for head, branch and leaf harvest, most were planted to Katani.
The diversification of the hemp industry sets the stage for variety development to likewise branch off, according to Kostuik.
Some of that progress, he noted, is being driven by work south of the international border. Hemp in the U.S. has seen a significant shot of research dollars, both in fibre and CBD, and the impact of that work is now trickling north. In particular, he noted, significant research has been put into hemp as a biodegradable alternative to plastics.
“We’re 20 years plus, here in Canada with hemp, but it almost seems like we’re brand new again, because we’re starting to explore all these additional markets and adding on to the food market with specific varieties that will do specific things,” Kostuik said.
PIHG, for example, says its development efforts are still focused on higher CBD and fibre, although there has also been some work on grain. The co-op currently has four varieties in the Canadian Hemp Trade Association trials.
For HGI, the priority for future variety development is still very much about yield, with a second priority around protein profile — something that has also been of interest to Manitoba Harvest.
This July, Protein Industries Canada (PIC) announced a two-year partnership between Manitoba Harvest, Pulse Genetics, genomics company NRGene Canada, and Farmers Business Network Canada. The partnership would develop hemp and pea varieties with improved protein for use in food and ingredient processing, PIC said, including a hemp-pea flour blend.
“We may not have a variety developed for registration by that time, but we’ll be well on our way,” Shwaluk said.
He estimated that they currently get around 30 per cent protein out of their hemp. More than quantity, however, he said, the focus will also be on protein characteristics.
“We may be able to increase the content slightly, but it’s as much the quality that we’re looking for and plant-based proteins are a very strong trend in the food marketplace and we’re aiming for a protein content that has better taste, better quality for mixability,” he said.
In general, he said, variety development in their company orients around three pillars: good agronomics (yields, easily harvested, short to moderately tall), good processing (oil and protein quality and processing yield) and quality to the end-user (taste, etc.).
There are also, he maintained, room for synergies, despite the company being largely grain focused.
While the food market is the company’s priority, Manitoba Harvest is “exploring all opportunities right now,” he said.
“I think with all the benefits of hemp and the things that it can do, we’re certainly not going to rule out if we could manage a dual-market opportunity for our farms,” he added.