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HIGHLIGHTS
  1. Heavy September snow in Alberta seen hurting hemp quality and volume
  2. Damaged hemp grain likely to be sold to lower-paying European bird seed market
  3. CHTA plans to ask Canadian government to permit hemp seed to be sold as feed

A wet Prairie summer followed by a September snowstorm in Alberta means Canada’s 2019 hemp crop is no longer expected to turn into the record harvest that was expected, even after a soaring number of farmers planted the crop to cash in on surging demand for the plant’s cannabidiol (CBD).

With production levels now expected to rival that of 2017, grain from damaged crops is likely to be sold into Europe’s lower-paying bird seed market rather than into the North American food sector.

An early snowfall in parts of Alberta – Canada’s biggest hemp growing province – brought up to a meter of snow to some farms in the midst of harvest. The Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance (CHTA) said it was too soon to know how much of the crop had been damaged by the snow, as some farmers were already drying their harvested crop indoors, while others had chaff drying in fields while others still had plants standing in fields.

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Hemp is a hardy plant and has a good chance of recovering from a snowfall while it is standing in the field, whereas harvested chaff that was drying in fields is likely to undergo quality degradation.

“There will be volume loss and quality loss because of harvest weather,” said Ted Haney, executive director of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance (CHTA).

The early snow in Alberta came after Saskatchewan had a late seeding period due to wetness and the small crops in the Maritime provinces were damaged by Hurricane Dorian in early September.

Earlier this year, the CHTA forecast that farmers here planted 125,000 to 175,000 acres, roughly triple the 50,000 acres estimated in 2018. Canadian farmers are expected to plant a record 400,000 acres of hemp by 2023, as the crop becomes financially attractive for its increasing number of uses and, consequently, revenue streams from byproducts such as seed, fibre and CBD.

Industrial hemp has been farmed for food in Canada, primarily the Prairies, since 1998 but 2018 was the first year producers were allowed to sell chaff for CBD extraction, which provides another revenue source from the crop.

The unseasonal snow likely reduced quality and yields of both the crop’s grain and CBD-containing chaff at a time that many farmers were harvesting their first hemp crop, which is seeing increased demand after the Canadian and U.S. governments legalized the cannabinoid. This will be the second year that Canadian hemp farmers can sell chaff to licensed extractors for CBD, a non-intoxicating cannabinoid that is touted for its healthy attributes, though substantial clinical trials have yet to prove this scientifically.

Unlike most crops, hemp has multiple byproducts that increase its value, and before CBD legalization, farmers already exported fibre and seed. In 2017, U.S. hemp imports were valued at US$67.3-million, with 90 per cent of this coming from Canada, according to a June, 2018, Congressional Research Service report.

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Though the countries have not yet permitted international trade of hemp-derived CBD for non-medical uses, exports are widely expected to be allowed in the near future and the demand for products made from this – ranging from cosmetics to health supplements to pet food – is forecast to strengthen significantly over the next five years and onward.

“A relatively high percentage of the hemp crop was already harvested when that snow hit. For the hemp crop that is still out, this wet snow is going to challenge the crop from a quality perspective,” Mr. Haney said.

Hemp seeds that sprout are subject to further damage and are less suitable for de-hulling, oil and protein concentrate.

“There will be some downgrades. More of that product will not meet food standard,” Mr. Haney said.

This expectation for reduced quality in some Prairie hemp crops comes at a time that the hemp industry wants the Canadian government to permit its seed, also known as grain, to be sold as livestock feed when the quality is not high enough for human consumption.

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The CHTA is preparing an application to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, requesting that hemp seed be permitted as a livestock feed ingredient, but any approval could come too late for the 2019 crop.

“This is going to be more a quality issue than a total production issue,” Mr. Haney said, adding that much of the sprouted seed could be sold into Europe’s bird seed market rather than as food in North America.

Alberta’s proximity to the Rocky Mountains means that weather often changes quickly. In preparation for this possibility, Frederick Pels planted the X59 cultivar for the first time on nearly 1,500 acres near Airdrie, Alta. This cultivar is known to sustain cold snaps, said Mr. Pels, who is chief executive of Gaia Grow Corp., which has applied to become a licensed cannabis producer.

And while he did not know the condition of the 400 acres that was already harvested and covered with snow, the remaining 1,100 acres of standing hemp appeared unscathed by the storm.

“They were green, smelling great, completely upright, no signs of significant stress,” Mr. Pels said about the hemp that was standing during the snowfall.

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“The plants are highly viable. We were fortunate that the cultivar we planted has survived storms like this.”

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