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Organic hemp a money-maker

Manitoba organic farmers could be reaping excellent returns from the “green buffalo,” according to the co-founder of the world’s largest vertically integrated hemp food-processing facility based in Winnipeg.

Only five per cent of the 7,000 acres of organic hemp seed contracted each year by Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods and Oils comes from its home province, Mike Fata said at a recent organic trade opportunities workshop hosted by the Manitoba Organic Alliance.

“The majority of it is being grown in Saskatchewan and Alberta,” said Fata. “There are huge opportunities for Manitoba farmers.”

This year, the company is paying $1.15 per pound for organic hemp seed, and most growers average 700 to 1,000 pounds per acre. Input costs are “reasonable,” he added, with seeding rates of 20 to 25 pounds per acre.

The latest hemp varieties grow to be four to five feet tall and can be harvested using regular combines with slight modifications to avoid problems with fibre wrapping. The crop likes nitrogen, so organic farmers are advised to use an alfalfa green manure crop in rotation. Hemp seed should be kept at around nine per cent moisture to avoid heating in the bin, so aeration systems may be necessary to protect the high-value crop.

Hemp is called the green buffalo because every part has a use. Fata’s company sells dehulled, protein-rich hemp “hearts” (shelled hemp seed that is deemed a “superfood” by its proponents), hemp oil, protein powder, and a milk-substitute called “Hemp Bliss,” which has enjoyed sales growth of 50 to 100 per cent a year. Manitoba is also home to Hemp Oil Canada in Ste. Agathe.

Despite the recession, Manitoba Harvest’s revenue surpassed $20 million last year, up from just $50,000 when the company was founded in 1998.

Its 20,000-square-foot HACCP-certified plant was built in 2009 and the company has 1.5 million pounds of storage capacity on site and its own quality control lab, which runs 24/7. Further expansion is on the way, said Fata. It is also actively marketing hemp food products to mainstream consumers, and hands out more than one million free samples at consumer and trade shows each year.

Fata said he understands the reluctance of some farmers to contract with hemp companies, given that a number of small companies “made big promises that weren’t kept” in the 13 years since the crop arrived on the Prairies.

“We pay our bills — we take the grain when we say we’re going to take the grain,” said Fata.

“We now have a good financial backing that allows us to put our schedule together for when we’re going to pull grain and pay at that time.”

Because of its close resemblance to marijuana, the crop is still under the supervision and regulation of Health Canada. However, rules have been relaxed since it was first legalized in 1997 and now permission to grow hemp involves little more than a one-page application and a background check — a process that takes three to four weeks for approval. Some varieties are exempt from THC testing, said Fata.

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