Back in 1998, when industrial hemp production was legalized, most expected the crop would be grown for its fibre.
After all, it was the original market for the crop, with the strong sturdy fibres having been used for centuries to produce rope, canvas and paper.
Why it matters: Manitoba’s hemp industry has been largely grain focused, but feasibility studies out of Alberta suggest that a more “green”-minded consumer might mean the time is right to revisit fibre.
Few at the time foresaw the development of a food market for the crop, boosted by the health food and organic sector, but that’s exactly what’s happened. Meantime, hemp fibre has been all but forgotten. Here and there are a handful of small companies trading less refined products like animal bedding, and in Vegreville, Alta., a research centre looks to unlock the potential of this old-yet-new market. In Manitoba virtually the entire crop is grown for grain and the fibre is but a nuisance to deal with after harvest.
Francois Catellier, adviser with “green” infrastructure company Eco-west, says that is a missed opportunity. The company was recently contracted to explore the feasibility of a hemp fibre plant in northern Alberta as part of Hemp Alberta Northern Advantage (HANA).
“To go into that space where you’re trying to displace lower-priced, commonly used products — say, for example, automotive parts, to displace polypropylene and fibreglass and to displace cement as a building material — the idea was grand, it always has been,” Catellier said. “But 10, 15, maybe even five years ago, the consumer wasn’t pulling it in. The consumer wasn’t buying it. The consumer was still more worried about cost.”
That landscape may be changing with demand for “green” and “sustainable” products with a lower carbon footprint, he argued, something that hemp, as a renewable resource, could easily help fulfil.
The Alberta feasibility study identified seven areas for high-quality hemp biocomposites in the auto sector alone, a list spanning from door trim and vehicle interiors to flooring. In the same vein, Catellier argued, hemp biofibres could break into the fibreglass market or be used in air filtration or insulation, a North American market valued at around US$7 billion.
Within Manitoba, Winnipeg’s Composite Innovation Centre has already turned to projects like biocomposite tractor hoods, made from a combination of agave and hemp, hempcrete (made from hemp hurd and lime) building materials, and ceiling tiles.
The gardening sector might also be ripe for picking, according to HANA. The feasibility study outlined products such as growth mats or weed suppression that might make use of hemp and source into both North America and Europe.
The Canadian sector would need to vastly expand its capacity to start feeding into those markets, Catellier admitted.
A newly legalized cannabinoid market may also provide a new avenue for hemp fibre.
Agronomists and market experts, Catellier included, have noted synergies between the ideal harvest window for nutraceuticals like CBD and the ideal harvest window for fibre.
Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers chair Chris Dzisiak has also noted the synergy, although he says more breeding work will be needed, since the varieties best suited for CBD harvest may not be best suited for high-quality hemp fibre.
Many early hemp farmers did not have livestock, according to Keith Watson, a former Manitoba crop diversification specialist, and grain may have overtaken fibre at least partially because grain production fit better with existing equipment.
Watson, currently involved in Gilbert Plains hemp fibre-processing company Hemp Sense, says he has seen little change in the hemp fibre landscape, and the challenges that existed a decade ago still persist today.
Decortication, the process that separates fibre from hemp hurd, remains expensive, he said, while quality issues make it harder to source enough hemp to make a plant viable and things like stones in a bale can play havoc with equipment.
“There’s a lot of details missing,” Watson said. “You need the bales. The bales have to be put up in a certain condition. They’ve got to be stored in a certain condition. They can’t be left out in the rain.”
Those quality concerns are one reason why Hemp Sense opted out of decortication.
The conventional fibre-processing method failed to impress Hemp Sense founder Lyall Bates during an exploratory tour of European hemp plants more than a decade ago.
The equipment was expensive, he found, and Bates estimates that establishing a new decortication plant might cost between $14 million and $20 million.
“And they weren’t getting enough for their end product,” he said. “So, I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I think new technology to make the fibre cleaner needs to be there and you’ve got to get the price down.”
In place of decortication, Bates developed a means to process the full hemp stalk and built his business on less refined fibre products such as kitty litter, absorbants and animal bedding. The process bypasses many of those quality issues, the company says, as well as costing less than decortication while still allowing room for the company to spin off into additional products.
Hemp Sense’s neighbour, Plains Industrial Hemp Processing, has faced its own growing pains as it seeks to open the doors to higher-quality fibre.
Chinese textile businessman Robert Jin has worked to get the decortication plant off the ground since 2010, a process that has involved over $5 million of government funding.
The project has been delayed numerous times due to equipment issues — much of which has been imported from China and faced regulatory hurdles — construction standards issues, and a 2014 workplace accident for which the company was later fined $20,000.
At one point, the plant had to undergo significant rewiring after failing to meet electrical standards.
The plant reopened briefly in 2017, but closed after four months due to financial issues, a representative of the company said.
The company says it has since modified and updated its equipment and was planning to reopen by late December 2018. The plant was expecting additional equipment to arrive from China in early 2019.
Market building will be key if hemp fibre is to come into its own, Catellier said, citing past failures where plants were built before markets were assured, or where companies failed to diversify their product lineup.
“You can’t start too small,” he warned. “You need to really have done your homework on building up the market space — long-term contracts with more than one market. You start by establishing low-hanging fruit to get you going, but people have made the mistake of trying to build their whole business on that low-hanging fruit.”