By Arthur Hanks
Industrial Hemp is one of the more interesting new crops that are changing the farmscape of 21st century Saskatchewan. Known historically as a premium source of fibre for rope, rigging, sails and durable textiles hemp is primarily grown in Saskatchewan today for the healthy nutritious hemp seed. Since federal regulations allowing hemp growing were announced in 1998, cultivation has been fairly modest. However, cultivation has been steadily increasing on an annual basis. In 2004, Saskatchewan grew over 1000 hectares of hemp. Because of rising consumer demand, much more is expected to be planted in 2005. Between a quarter to a third of all Canadian grown hemp is cultivated in Saskatchewan.
Saskatchewan has some interesting climatic advantages when it comes to growing hemp as a field crop. A photosensitive plant, hemp responds well to Saskatchewan's long summer days. The extended day length contributes to the rich nutritional profile of the seed. Cool nights and clean environment contribute to making hardy, healthy plants.
Farmers across the province are investigating how hemp can be grown sustainably. Hemp has a reputation for being able to be grown without herbicides or pesticides, and to a large extent this is true—if the farmer knows what he or she is doing. To be sure, many organic farmers are finding hemp can be grown in their crop rotations.
Soil fertility and weed competition are two issues which have to be addressed. Hemp has a fairly large nitrogen uptake, so it is common to grow hemp after a nitrogen-fixing crop such as alfalfa, or legumes. Alfalfa also chokes out possible weed competitors – while mature hemp is a good competitor, other plants can overtake seedling hemp plants in a dry spring. Oats and barley are two preceding crops which should be avoided: the sizes of seeds are similar to hemp, and so make seed cleaning more difficult. Some farmers will underseed their hemp with white clover, while others will ready their soil by ploughing down a pea crop.
As stated, mature hemp plants can be excellent weed competitors. Their broad canopy of serrated leaves chokes out other plants, leaving the land in fairly good shape for the next crop. As well, post harvest, some nitrogen is returned to the soil as hemp leaves and stalks are reincorporated back into the earth. Real world indications to date are the organic hemp and organic farming work well together.
Good thing too as modern hemp production is being pulled along by the exciting global trend in organic eating, including an unprecedented demand for hemp seed foods. While there is some historical knowledge of hemp in the diet – Buddha ate hemp seed after all -- contemporary interest in hemp foods only began when cultivation was re-established in Canada. When harvests of fresh seed finally became available, gourmands, vegetarians, athletes, and other healthy living advocates discovered first hand that the humble hemp seed is a nutritional gift package. The seed's oil is rich, and is full of Essential Fatty Acids most notably Omega 3 and 6, including the somewhat rare GLA. The seed's "meat" contains boast of all 12 essential amino acids. Hemp is also a prime source of insoluble fibre. And importantly, it tastes good.
Currently, Saskatchewan-grown hemp is being sold across North America. Hemp is usually found in better natural food stores as hemp seed oil, dehulled hemp seed, hemp breads, waffles, ice-cream, granola, burgers, chips, protein powders, flours and energy bars. More uses of this delicious, nutritious seed are being created each year. And as more North American consumers chose hemp as the cash register, this will mean more organic farmers in Saskatchewan will choose to grow it.