Hemp emerging as a bio-alternative to plastics

written by Brenton Harding and edited by Doug Firby

Olds – Industrial hemp is not only enabling Alberta farmers to diversify their crops but is also providing unexpected bonuses.

Darren Haarsma, an industrial hemp farmer in Spruce Grove west of Edmonton, said he has been growing hemp for four years and discovered “some unique advantages that I didn’t expect.”

In 2016, snow laid down his crops, but not the hemp. Despite being up to two metres tall, the hemp crop remained standing ready for harvesting.

Typically, he said hemp is harvested in two passes. The first takes off the tops that contain seeds. The second pass takes place a week or two later. Every part of the plant is used – top to root – even the dust.

On the downside, oil hemp seeds can trigger harvester fires.

Hemp has a long history with humans. It was one of the first plants to be spun into usable fibres more than 10,000 years ago. In the 1960s, it was a way to refer to marijuana, reflecting hemp as strain of the Cannabis sativa plant. Yet industrial hemp has very low levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive component of cannabis.

Industrial hemp is increasingly being used in a range of commercial products including paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, and animal feed. Agrologist Jesse Hahn said hemp is can replace fibre-based materials, such as fibreglass and many forest products.

Some 56,000 hectares of industrial hemp were under cultivation in Canada in 2017, Hahn said.

Haarsma spoke at a March conference hosted by the Alberta Council of Technologies and Agriculture Food Council of Alberta. The audience for the sold-out conference included investors and researchers, business representatives looking for opportunities, hemp growers, and governments.

The second annual conference at Olds College was co-hosted by the Agriculture Food Council of Alberta (AFC) and the Alberta Council of Technologies Society (ABCtech). AFC assists Alberta farmers and food companies in moving to the next level. ABCtech brings companies and individuals together for advancing emerging technologies and diversifying Alberta’s economy. Olds College conducts applied research and integrated learning to agriculture, horticulture, land and stewardship.