Industrial hemp is a strain of cannabis that looks similar to cannabis, but lacks the quantity of THC found in the recreational marijuana plants
WINNIPEG — He’s seen it happen more than once.
A car rolling up the dusty rural Manitoba road slows and then stops in front of Marcus Isaac’s farm — the occupants no doubt captivated by the acres of chest-high cannabis plants swaying in the breeze.
The car door opens, and a shadowy figure dashes into the field, uproots an armful of plants and speeds away in a shower of gravel and road dust.
“We just laughed,” Isaac said with a big smile.
“Let them have a couple of plants … they’ll never be back!”
After drying, rolling and smoking their ill-gotten bounty, the plant thieves will no doubt realize they stumbled across one of Canada’s increasing number of industrial hemp producers — dedicated to growing a strain of cannabis sativa lacking the quantities of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in recreational marijuana plants.
Industrial hemp has a long history in North America as a useful and sustainable crop — both for food and as a source of fibre and oil.
Among Canada’s more established firms is Manitoba Harvest — the world’s largest producer of hemp food products — which for over 20 years, has maintained a functional and beneficial link between growers and consumers, converting seed into food and oil.
“Bridging that gap between the farm and consumer is extremely important,” said director of farm operations, Clarence Shwaluk.
Also important is how the seed is grown, he added, to ensure their lineage can be traced and, increasingly, that they meet standards necessary to be considered organically-grown — amounting to roughly 15% to 20% of incoming seed five years ago.
Today, more than half of hemp seeds fall into the organic category.
For producers interested in growing hemp, it takes little more than simply buying seed.
A licence from Health Canada is required, along with a sense of adventure due to the relatively short history of commercial-grade hemp growing in Canada.
Shwaluk said that farmers can grow hemp as far north as High Level, Alta., which is about 740 kilometres north of Edmonton.
“It’s an extremely versatile crop.”
Agronomist Scott Wolfe inspects hemp plants near Kleefeld, Manitoba on Aug. 14 2019.
Seeds are made into a variety of food items, including hemp hearts, loose and barred granola, protein powders and oils suitable for culinary uses.
It’s that versatility that has both farmers and producers raving about the crop.
“It’s just the flexibility of the plant,” said Scott Wolfe, an agronomist who helps producers transition into growing hemp.
“With the range of planting dates — it’s kind of a hang-loose crop — it gives growers a lot of flexibility.”
Growers, he said, are also guaranteed a market for their seed — helping offset uncertainty.
This is Isaac’s second season growing hemp — one of an increasing number of western Canadian producers devoting land to this robust and hardy crop.
“My type of farming has always been interesting stuff,” he said.
“I’ve grown peach trees — that’s my type of farming. Hemp isn’t quite normal, that’s why I grow it.”
Dealing with the tough, fibrous stalk of the finished plant can also present a challenge come harvest time.
“You sometimes see it on the combine, it makes ropes,” Isaac said.
“On the back of the combine every morning there’ll be long ropes hanging from it.”
The Finola cultivar, which Manitoba Harvest specializes in specifically, tends to grow shorter than other cannabis plants — which can help ease harvesting concerns.
“It’s not the scary monster 14-foot crop that’s intimidating for a farmer to look at,” Wolfe said.
Having hemp as part of regular crop rotation, Wolfe explained, can also reap benefits for the soil.
“Because it’s a tall crop, it sequesters a lot of carbon,” he said.
“Having that taproot that can improve soil tilth for farmers, and bring up nutrients from deep in the soil profile that might be lost to other crops that don’t root as deep.”
As for the future, Isaac is dedicated to hemp farming.
“I’ve been very happy,” he said. “I’m expecting to continue to grow it.”
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On Twitter: @bryanpassifiume
Written by Deborah Stokes