Fibre processing requires critical mass to establish industry.
Which comes first in a new industry: production or marketing? This typical chicken and egg scenario is a barrier that the hemp industry in Alberta has to overcome before hemp fibre production becomes a viable crop for farmers. To help move the hemp industry forward, the Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development Economics and Competitiveness Division commissioned a study on the potential for hemp in Alberta. The Alberta Hemp Cost of Production and Market Assessment final report (http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/econ14086), released in early 2012, provides a detailed overview of the entire industrial hemp value chain in Alberta, including benchmark costs of production at the farm level.
“The fibre market is emerging in Alberta. There are several companies working on high value market products that are made from hemp,” says Lori-Jo Graham with the Bio-Industrial Opportunities Branch of Alberta Agriculture.
The report states that there appears to be a tremendous opportunity for industrial hemp production and processing in Alberta, but there have been a number of false starts over the years. The difficulty in getting the industry started is that a stable supply chain has yet to fully develop, and without stable end markets, the establishment of processing plants will stall.
Currently, the hemp seed business is well established in Canada. In 2011, Canada had 15,720 hectares of hemp production with over 80% for seed production. The major market for hemp seed is Hemp Oil Canada, a company that uses a cold press system to produce food and industrial oils at St. Agathe, Manitoba. Some is also sold as whole or dehulled seed to consumers. Hemp seed net returns for irrigated land was estimated to be approximately $200 to $1200 per acre compared to $487 for irrigated spring wheat and $369 for irrigated canola.
Worldwide, there are approximately 10 decortication plants operating commercially in the world. The Canadian hemp fibre industry has been slow to develop, and only a few western Canadian decortication and processing companies exist or are at a pilot stage, according to the report:
- Clear Line, Winnipeg – This company is focused on setting up a non-woven matting line. Work has been done with the Manitoba government and the Composite Innovation Centre in Winnipeg to look at technology transfer options. It appears that this project will no longer go ahead.
- TTS Inc, Edmonton – TTS has struck a joint venture with the Town of Drayton Valley, and Weyerhauser, to establish a non-woven matting line in the old wood manufacturing plant. TTS has acquired the matting line equipment from a dormant plant in Vancouver and has been transported to the site. The project is still moving ahead, although opening date has not yet been announced.
- Emerson Hemp Distributors – Emerson, Manitoba – This primary processing plant for hemp straw is located in Emerson, Manitoba. The plant has been operating for several years, and has been selling hemp fibre and core into both the Canadian and US animal bedding and the green building materials markets. The technology was developed privately and can decorticate hemp straw at a rate of 1.5 to 2 tonnes per hour.
- Gilbert Plains Processing, Manitoba – This plant is in a state of development and construction. It is owned by Chinese investors and the technology they plan to use is also from China. The plant is hoping to use single purpose straw hemp (as opposed to dual purpose hemp, which is the conventional practice). They have plans to handle 18,000 tonnes of hemp fibre per year, but this is felt to be quite optimistic as is their suggested processing speed of 1.5 to 2 tonnes per hour according to some industry experts.
- Schweitzer Mauduit (SM), Manitoba – SM has been a long term processor of flax straw into fibre for specialty papers such as cigarettes and fine papers, much of which is exported to France. They have been considering the processing of hemp, and have done some research and development work at Alberta Biomaterials Development Centre (ABDC) in Vegreville.
- Alberta BioMaterial Centre, Vegreville – A cross-ministry partnership of Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD), Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) and Alberta Innovates Technology Futures (AITF). The ABDC has been involved in the research and development of hemp and hemp processing systems. Hemp research plots have been established in the Vegreville area to evaluate the agronomic performance of a range of hemp varieties under different soil, climatic conditions, and agricultural production practices. The pilot plant uses European equipment. It has the largest biomass processing pilot plant fractionalization capacity in North America.
- Naturally Advanced Technologies, Vancouver – This company has been promoting a “Crailar” technology over the past 8-10 years. This was developed jointly with the National Research Council Canada (NRC) and the AITF. They produce textile products, and for the most part have been using flax bast fibres. Much of their processing has been done in the US.
Graham says continued work is required to move the Alberta hemp value chain forward. She cites several companies who are working towards hemp fibre production in Alberta.
“Three companies Stemia Group (southern Alberta); Motive Industries (Calgary) and TTS (Edmonton) are progressing well and will be key to developing the processing services, manufacturing capacity and market connections which will be required. We are also working on developing and detailing the competitive advantage of hemp grown in Alberta,” says Graham.
Critical to the value chain will be bringing the pieces together at the right time. The Alberta BioMaterial Centre pilot plant at Vegreville is providing business and technical expertise to the three companies developing hemp fibre products in Alberta. Through these public/private initiatives, the chicken and egg scenario may be overcome to establish a viable hemp fibre industry in Alberta.
“We are making head way in the development of a robust value chain in Alberta for industrial hemp,” says Lori-Jo Graham.