Suddenly, everyone was talking about peas.
Two pea protein processing plants opened in 2020 just in time for Manitoba’s 150th birthday party, giving the tiny pulse crop a stature never before enjoyed in the province.
Previously, the pea was little more than an afterthought for most farmers; yellow peas, that is, not the greens one your kids rolled around on their plate and off the table and across the floor until they stop and get stepped on.
Yellow peas are making Manitoba a protein processing centre in North America. The opening of processing plants by Roquette and Merit Functional Foods signals a new era. This is how an industry begins and goes on to reap economic rewards for a province for the next 10, 20, 30 years, perhaps half a century or more.
Yellow peas are those the voyageurs bundled on their cross-Canada tours and supped as split pea soup twice daily. Voyageurs brought them from Eastern Canada, where they were grown at trading posts, although fur traders grew plots in Manitoba, too. It was too time-consuming for voyageurs to hunt for game on their journeys, so peas and pemmican became dietary staples.
Voyageurs were like marathoners and needed 5,000 calories per day and yellow peas were ideal sustenance. They were light to carry when dried, and bursting with healthy protein and fibre. They tasted good, too, when made into a soup with salted pork. Manitoba’s Festival du Voyageur holds pea soup contests every year. The 2020 winners for best pea soup were the Nonsuch Brewing Company and Amsterdam Tea Room.
Regarding protein: yellow peas are high in arginine, an amino acid that boosts energy. Arginine also builds muscle by elevating iron levels, and is known to prevent heart disease and stimulate the immune system. Peas are also free of gluten and allergens found in eggs and dairy. And yellow peas, a pulse crop, contain almost no fat, a much different profile than its legume cousins, soybeans and peanuts, that have high fat content.
The first yellow pea crop in Manitoba is recorded as being cultivated in 1883. The peas were grown chiefly as a grain crop for hog feed back then. It was claimed in Eastern Canada that feeding peas to pigs made for sweeter tasting pork. In the 1920s, peas began being grown for other purposes like canning and shipping east for pea soup, and in the 1940s and 50s for factory processing.[i]
Thanks to grower innovation, field peas had a great revival in Manitoba in the dry 1980s but the wet 1990s chased them off. Where did they go? Saskatchewan. The eastern Prairies proved too wet and the initiative that Manitoba farmers had begun migrated to our western neighbour and its drier climate.
That’s why people were left scratching their heads when Roquette, a company based in France, announced the location of its new plant would be in Manitoba.
The first reaction was “Hallelujah! More processing!” as people stumbled over the alliteration of “pea protein processing plant in Portage la Prairie.”
The next reaction was, why Manitoba? That question “comes up all the time,” said Michelle Finley, Roquette communications manager, in a 2020 Fields on Wheels webinar, sponsored by the University of Manitoba Institute of Transportation.
Saskatchewan is the largest field pea grower in the world. Saskatchewan farmers plant three million acres of peas annually, versus just 65,000 acres in Manitoba in 2017 when Roquette broke ground on its new plant. Manitoba farmers have since upped their game and planted about 175,000 acres in 2020. But Saskatchewan still grows 13 times that. Alberta grows about nine times more than Manitoba.
So why did Roquette pick Portage la Prairie? One reason is backhauls. More traffic moves west than east, and truckers make their money on front hauls. So it’s cheaper to get backhauls out of Saskatchewan to move peas to Manitoba than vice versa. Roquette has contracted with Bison Transport.
Sticking with transportation, its location is right on the TransCanada Highway, behind the Simplot plant. With markets for pea protein in the United States, particularly in the east, Portage la Prairie is better situated than Saskatoon to reach that market. Additionally, there is good access to container traffic with CN Rail and CP Rail, although all product will move by truck initially.
The Portage la Prairie area has the water and waste disposal facilities to handle industrial clients like Simplot and now Roquette. The city and RM of Portage la Prairie also have plenty of space and a solid workforce. Of the Roquette plant’s 120 staff, about half are from the RM, and the rest are within an hour’s drive between Winnipeg and Brandon. It’s also a plus for the company to be in a food cluster with companies like Simplot and McCain Foods, as well as Richardson Milling (oats), Nutri-Pea Ltd., and Avena Foods. Rubbing shoulders with other food companies means they can more readily help each other out and exchange ideas.
However, the biggest factor in Roquette’s decision to locate in Portage la Prairie is Manitoba’s green power: hydroelectricity. Manitoba’s hydroelectricity is less expensive, of course, and pea protein extraction requires considerable power. Merit Functional Foods, which is processing both peas and canola for protein, has said it is among the top 10 energy users in Winnipeg, and it is considerably smaller than Roquette’s facility.
But being from Europe, sustainable energy is a priority for Roquette. More importantly, Manitoba Hydro’s clean energy is a priority for its market: consumers of plant-based meat substitutes want their food produced in the most environmentally friendly way possible. Roquette knows its market will be looking at the carbon footprint, and hydroelectricity is clean energy.
“Saskatchewan was also considered” for the plant, Finley acknowledged, “but really the defining difference between the two was the hydroelectric power.”
The plant is the largest pea protein processing facility in the world at 20,000 square metres, or 215,000 square feet. That’s almost two-and-a-half times the size of a CFL playing field. It includes 60 kilometres of installed pipe, 10,000 cubic metres of concrete, 3,000 tonnes of steel, and 10,000 truckloads of gravel. A thousand people at one time worked on construction. The company has three agronomists on staff to answer producer questions and help them grow the crop. The first farmer to deliver peas to the plant in 2020 received a hockey jersey with Roquette’s name and No. 1 on the back.
We don’t always know what to make of figures in construction but a $600-million plant is a huge commitment. What makes it doubly impressive is Roquette isn’t using investor money. The company was started by two brothers in 1933, and remains a private-held family business. Today, 250 family members are involved in some capacity with company operations (out of close to 9,000 employees worldwide). Like James Richardson & Sons, Roquette spends its own money, not someone else’s. Building in Portage la Prairie was a long and carefully studied decision.
Roquette clearly has a pea protein strategy. It has spent CDN$780 million in pea processing in five years from 2016 – 2020. The bulk of it is the Portage la Prairie plant but it has also upgraded a facility in France, purchased a pulse protein extrusion facility in the Netherlands, and a pea breeding facility in Israel that specializes in developing high protein peas.
One of the big concerns in the pea protein industry is what to do with all the starch. About 23 – 24 per cent of the plant is protein, about 50 per cent of it is starch. That’s a lot of starch. Fortunately, starch is Roquette’s specialty. It was started by the two Roquette brothers as a potato starch company, and has developed from there into the world’s largest food ingredient company. Roquette is a very sophisticated company with vast experience dealing with byproducts like starch.
In fact, it’s almost hard to tell which is the byproduct for Roquette, the pea protein or the starch left over after the protein has been extracted. In Europe, Roquette actually started processing peas for the starch; the pea protein market only emerged later. Roquette knows how to make everything from cosmetics to pillow casings to plastics out of its starches. It produces more than 650 byproducts from starch extracted from corn, wheat, potatoes and peas. “They’re getting value out of their side stream by making food protein,” said one food industry veteran.
It’s not unlike the Husky Energy ethanol plant in Minnedosa, whose profitability hinges on selling the distillers grain byproduct, a protein concentrate, into the feed market. The same way fibre and protein are left over from ethanol production, a carbohydrate fibre is a byproduct of pea processing, said Daryl Domitruk, executive director of Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers. “You want to make a buck on every component,” he said.
Pea starches currently are found as an ingredient in foods like pork sausages and meat alternatives (pea starch is reputed to improve texture and “mouth feel”), casings for sausages, breading on chicken nuggets, baked goods (to improve softness), and as a replacement for pectin in soups. A coating that uses pea starch retains crispiness longer on products like onion rings when put under a heat lamp. Non-food applications include pea starch to make biocomposite paper and packaging material, pet food, and a vegan alternative shell capsule for pharmaceuticals.
YOU CANNOT OVERSTATE the significance of the Roquette plant locating in Manitoba. Roquette estimates a third of all protein in foods will be plant-based by 2054, and pea protein is the fastest-growing protein ingredient within the plant-based product category. Completion of the plant in Portage la Prairie was delayed by more than a year when Roquette redesigned the facility so it could be expanded in the future.
This is not to say plant-protein will crowd livestock meat production. That would not help Roquette. The company says it doesn’t want that. Much of its byproduct at its facilities around the world is made into feed for livestock, so sustainable livestock production is vital to Roquette, too.
But it has to move where the market is going and people’s diets are changing. People are adding more variety to their diets.
Roquette spokeswoman Finley gave a glimpse into the reaches of the company with some examples of how it was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Roquette manufactures ingredients used in making sugar-free mints and gums. You wouldn’t think of the gum market as a victim of the pandemic but sales plummeted. People were freshening their breath less. First of all, they were wearing masks and didn’t need to worry about their breath as much. It’s also hard chewing gum with a mask on. Secondly, consumers were going to the supermarket less and therefore were less likely to engage in impulse buying from shelves next to the cashier.
As well, Roquette saw a drop in the liquid sugar it produces for soft drinks and other beverages because big events like concerts and sporting contests were cancelled
But the company also saw gains. During the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants closed, more people worked from home and had more time to prepare meals. Home-based cooking increased and Roquette saw an unexpected uptick in plant-based protein sales. “People tried new things at home that they might not have otherwise tried if not for COVID,” said Finley.
Manitoba is now positioned to become “the Silicon Valley of plant-based protein production,” she said. It has put Manitoba on the map in the newest wave of food production. Provincial ag staff and people in the pulse and food industry report regularly fielding calls from companies around the world inquiring about Manitoba as a place to do business, since the Roquette announcement. Many of the inquiries are from companies that hadn’t heard of Manitoba until Roquette arrived.
Finley said work is underway to bring complementary businesses into the area. The company would like to see two or three companies spring up around its Roquette plant, possibly users of its coproducts. “Our starch is of extremely high quality. It’s a great opportunity for users of that product to locate around us. We’ve got lots of space out there,” Finley said.
In a way, one company has already joined the cluster, although not for the starch. Not long after Roquette unveiled its plans for Portage la Prairie, Merit Functional Foods announced it was jumping into protein processing, too. Merit built a $65-million, 88,000-square-foot facility that will produce both pea and canola protein. The plant is in Winnipeg’s CentrePort and employs 80 people.
Merit is a 40-60 partnership comprised of Burcon NutraScience Corp., a publicly traded Vancouver company whose core business has been canola protein; and a trio of senior managers from Hemp Oil Canada Inc. in Shaun Crew, Barry Tomiski and Ryan Bracken. Burcon has worked in Manitoba for decades, where it developed patented processes for the purification of protein isolates from canola.
BEFORE ROQUETTE AND MERIT, most yellow peas grown in the Prairies were exported as raw product, with China as a primary market. Processing peas for the starch actually began in China to make vermicelli noodles, also called glass noodles because they are clear. And China would ship back the leftover pea protein to the U.S. for hog feed.
“So we’re shipping peas to China, they’re extracting the starches they want, and the protein they ship back to North America. Roquette is short-circuiting that,” said Barry Prentice, a professor of supply chain economics at University of Manitoba.
Now, Roquette will process 125,000 tonnes of peas annually. Domitruk estimates Roquette will source about 60 per cent of the peas from Manitoba, and 40 per cent from Saskatchewan, to spread its risk. The Mantioba Pulse and Soybean Growers executive director doesn’t see Manitoba growing a million acres of peas because of the wetness, which breeds disease, but 200,000 to 300,000 acres annually is achievable. That could increase with help from plant breeders, who are busy trying to develop more disease-resistant pea varieties. Merit Functional Food projects it will need 20,000 tonnes of peas and canola initially. Merit is expected to source its raw material from Manitoba.
Roquette is associated with Beyond Meat and its plant-based meat replacement products. Merit is associated with Nestlé in France and is working more with soluble protein for dairy-alternative beverages. For example, pea protein is an ingredient in some dairy replacement products like almond milk. There are also pea milks being developed: people with a schoolyard sense of humour (most of us) can now honestly say we’re drinking pea. Ripple Foods in the U.S. certainly wasn’t bashful and came right out and labeled its product Pea Milk. It’s vegan, lactose free and gluten free, and contains no nut allergens, or soy protein to which people may be allergic. The pea milk also boasts more protein and calcium than other alternative milks. What Merit can offer is a product that blends canola and pea protein, and boasts superior solubility and no negative taste.
Before Merit, the meal from pressing oil from canola was sold as animal feed. Burcon’s process unlocks the protein from canola meal for human consumption. It is promoted as a highly purified protein ingredient that is both adaptable and very nutritious.
“It’s a nice protein to work with,” said Robin Young, chief operating officer with the Food Development Centre (FDC) in Portage la Prairie, prior to her appointment as Manitoba Agriculture value-added director in 2021. “It’s very functional, it goes into food products nicely, and there’s not a lot of after taste.”
It’s the same with pulse crops. Any plant will have protein but pulse crop protein has assets like a relatively simple extraction process, minimal flavour issues and good binding. Protein additives need a clean flavour, meaning not much flavour at all. Either scientists must breed flavour out of the plant variety, or reduce flavour in the manufacturing process. “Then we (FDC) work with complementary flavours, or masking flavours,” said Young.
At the FDC labs, there has been extensive work going on for decades on protein extraction and managing flavour issues. In fact, Impossible Foods out of California, a competitor of Beyond Meat, has worked out of FDC facilities for years developing its soy-based meat products. Its product was available at some Burger King outlets in the United States, and was introduced to some restaurants in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver as part of its first foray into Canada in 2020. The product is now in Manitoba.
Protein ingredients in food are not new. If you start checking labels, you’ll probably find you’ve been consuming soy protein for years. Soy protein has a solid nutritional complex in terms of its amino acid, and is easily accessed because it’s so globally available. Soybeans currently own the plant-based protein market, making up 80 per cent of the animal feed and human protein market. But that dominance is a concern. Because it is so pervasive, allergen issues have cropped up. That’s what opened the doors for soy protein alternatives like pea and canola protein. As well, most soy is genetically modified and people looking for meat-replacement products are very often looking for alternatives to genetically modified organisms (GMO).
So companies are exploring adding pea protein to virtually every potential food. There are literally new pea protein products being launched every day, said Tanya Der, director of innovation and marketing at Pulse Canada. According to one report, there were more than a thousand product launches using pea protein in 2016 alone.
The product lines have gone from simple protein bars a decade ago to meat alternatives ranging from beef burgers to chicken strips to pork-replacement chops; dairy-alternative beverages including milks, yogurts, shakes and frozen desserts; health foods, snack foods, and breads and baked goods. You can get a mayonnaise made with pea protein in place of eggs. You can get a plant-based shake or smoothie containing pea protein. You can get a pea protein line of enchiladas.
Pasta illustrates how pea protein is being employed and marketed. Certain foods cause your blood sugar to rise faster than others. Pastas are high on the glycemic index, meaning the speed with which a food causes a person’s blood sugar to rise. Such foods can cause blood sugar spikes in people with diabetes. Adding pea protein can help to slow or neutralize the glycemic effect. Pulse crops depress that glycemic profile. “A lot of pasta companies are looking to blend more pulses to make their pasta and positioning it as a low-glycemic food,” Der said.
Both the federal and provincial governments recognize Manitoba is on to something big and have put up millions of dollars to try to build upon the foundation provided by pulse growers and new companies Roquette and Merit. Ottawa provided nearly $80 million in debt financing to Merit Functional Foods. Merit also secured a $10 million, 10-year interest-free loan from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The federal government has committed $150 million to a body called Protein Industries Canada for plant-based protein research and development, and to establish a Prairie-based supercluster.
The province released the Manitoba Protein Advantage Strategy in 2019 to provide a roadmap to accelerate growth and unlock economic potential in the protein sector. This economic development initiative aims to sustainably increase plant and animal protein production, processing and innovation in Manitoba’s protein industries. The strategy builds on Manitoba’s recent success in attracting investments — of its goal to attract $1 billion in new investment in plant protein processing and another $500 million in new animal protein production, it has achieved over $670 million in the animal and plant protein sectors, which has created over 660 new jobs.
The Manitoba Protein Consortium, an industry-led committee created by the Manitoba government, championed a dialogue with 85 organizations from June 2020 – March 2021 and worked with a team of 17 industry representatives (Sustainable Protein Design Team) to create a Sustainable Protein Action Framework. The Framework’s long-term goal is to strengthen collaboration and innovation to realize Manitoba’s collective and equitable potential to produce diverse, high-quality, healthy and sustainable protein products. Along with Ottawa, the province has also made $100,000 available to develop a new Protein Research Strategy and proposed the establishment of a research chair.
FABA OR FAVA?
You say faba, Cale says fava. You say beans, Cale says pulses. Let’s call the whole thing off.
It so happens that fava beans and faba beans are the same thing. But ‘faba’ is the name used most often to describe the beans coming off the field, whereas ‘fava’ is the name used in the food industry.
So because their company processes for the food market, Cale and Hailey Jeffries in Glenboro named their company Prairie Fava.
“We weren’t focused on becoming another commodity, we were focused on adding value as a food ingredient,” explained Cale.
A lot of people still trip over the name, though. “Hopefully, we will be successful in converting everyone to a ‘vee’ but I don’t know. They can call it what they want, but maybe one day we’ll all be on the same page,” he said.
They can dream, and they have with the small food processing business they created two years ago. It was a major coup for the farm-based Prairie Fava to recently partner with food giant Roquette in a three-year program to develop pea and fava bean products, backed by Protein Industries Canada. The two companies will also research improvements in pea and fava processing.
In dried form, fava beans are light green or brownish colour, and look like a regular bean that’s been sat on. It’s squished in the middle. They look like the smoothed and flattened pebbles that wash up on Lake Winnipeg’s shoreline.
To further complicate matters, fava beans are also known as broad beans. That’s often the name for the green bean you pick from your garden and put it in your salad.
Cale operates Jeffries Seeds, a fifth generation family seed business, and Hailey is president of Prairie Fava. The company started when Cale sold pedigreed seed for fava beans and customers told him they would grow more if there were better markets. Light bulb! So the couple decided to process the beans themselves. Today, they sell farmers the seed and then buy back the fava beans and process them for the food market. They sell about 20,000 bushels of fava bean seeds a year, and purchase back about 4,000 tonnes to process and sell internationally. “It’s a closed loop,” Cale said.
Prairie Fava sells either fava flour or the split beans to bakeries, food processors, and protein companies in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Netherlands, India, and Belgium. “For a small company like us to be able to sell across the world is amazing,” Cale said.
Beans in general, known as dry beans, have recently experienced an uptick in popularity. These are the products most often thought of as “beans”; pork and beans in a can is a common sight on store shelves. “The pandemic put a spotlight on dry beans. They’re cheap and store for a long time, and are very versatile and an excellent source of protein,” said Daryl Domitruk, Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers executive director.
Growers have responded, and acreage is up to just under 200,000 acres, from an average of 120,000 acres. “It’s a high value crop and Manitoba is a good place to grow them,” Domitruk said.
Pulses are all the rage today because of their high protein-low fat profile. Protein is higher in fava beans than in peas at 30 per cent versus 23 – 24 per cent. All that nourishment is in a tightly packed little bean not much bigger than a gel capsule. So instead of popping pill supplements, pop beans. They are also easier to de-hull than peas and the processing is cleaner.
“That’s part of our job, too, is to familiarize people about what is a fava bean,” said Cale.
They are also easy to grow. Part of the reason is the plant doesn’t require nitrogen fertilizer. The fava bean is very environmentally friendly in that it pulls carbon from the air and converts it into nitrogen in the ground. So it self-fertilizes. In addition, it leaves nitrogen in the ground after harvest, which is good for soil. For every pound of fava beans harvested, a pound of nitrogen is left in the ground, said Cale. That is why many producers will use a pulse like fava beans as a temporary groundcover. A groundcover also holds down soil, preventing erosion.
You will see fava beans as ingredients in yogurts, milks, soups, and plant-based meat replacements (Beyond Meats has used it in their sausages). It’s in some healthy snacks like Bada Bean Bada Boom, advertised as “crunchy broad beans.”
Fava beans are believed to be the oldest domesticated bean in the world, found in an archaeological site in Galilee dated to 10,200 years ago.
HEMP IS THE OUTLAW of CROPS. It’s served time behind bars and now it’s out and trying to go straight and find a place in the society of store shelf products.
Food industry types talk about its “cool factor.” Some consumers like it for its bad boy history as much as its eye-popping health attributes—30 – 37 per cent protein, for example.
That is all very gratifying to Parkland growers and Manitoba processors who launched the hemp industry in North America two decades ago. Yet hemp remains stuck at the potential stage. It has not made the market inroads many believe it should have by now. Heading into 2021, many Western Canada growers were still holding hemp crop from 2018 that they have been unable to sell. For some farmers, the cool factor is more of a stigma—hemp’s relationship to cannabis—that has limited hemp to being any more than a niche crop.
The federal government legalized industrial hemp in 1998 and Parkland growers seized the opportunity. Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant with little or no narcotic agent THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). Canada has adopted a THC level of 0.3 per cent as the threshold dividing non-narcotic and narcotic cultivars.
With hemp, it seems a miraculous plant in the way every part can be used. Think of how profitability for Roquette and Merit hinges on finding uses for starch byproduct, and the same with the Husky ethanol plant in Minnedosa and its distillers grain byproduct.
That shouldn’t be a problem for hemp. The stem and stock can be used to make fibre for everything from rope to clothing to paper to building materials. Hemp seeds are being crushed for the oil and meal to make health products and personal care products, as well as food ingredients. Protein powder is used in non-dairy products like hemp milks, smoothies, and yogurts, and food products like nutritional bars and breads. Hemp is used in health supplements for its balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
The seeds can be de-hulled for the hemp nuts, or hearts. Those can be sprinkled on salads, yogurt and cereals, but hemp hearts are also being made into a spread, like peanut butter.
Its protein is highly valued. Hemp protein can be used in beverages and has good binding agents. For example, it can replace egg protein (some people are allergic to eggs) to give food traits like whipping and foaming. That’s part of what the food industry calls functionality.
“You don’t want a plant-based burger that crumbles,” said Alphonsus Utioh, research manager at the Food Development Centre. “That’s why (the food industry) is coming out with different kinds of protein, because some have different binding properties.”
The only parts of the hemp plant left unused were the leaves and flowers. Not anymore. In 2018, the federal government legalized the extraction of CBD (cannabidiol) oil from the leaves and flowers of hemp. CBD oil is being used to ease a range of ailments from anxiety and depression, to acne and heart disease.
The list of products that can be made from hemp, and made better than existing products, goes on and on. “Truly, you can process hemp with zero waste,” said Utioh.
On the food side, the pioneers were Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods. The company was comprised of three partners that included Mike Fata. Hemp Oil Canada in Ste. Agathe was another local hemp processor started by partners headed by Shaun Crew. Hemp Oil was later acquired by Manitoba Harvest. Fresh Hemp Foods is now the parent of the two companies, and is the largest hemp processor in Canada, manufacturing shelled hemp seeds, hemp protein mix, hemp oil and other products.
Manitoba is the beneficiary of other hemp processing companies like Hempco in MacGregor, Better Hemp Company in Portage la Prairie, and Paul and David Bobbee’s Midlake Specialty Food Products in Arborg. The latter offers contract processing for bulk hemp ingredients including toasted hemp seed, shelled hemp seed, hemp protein powder and hemp oil.
There is also fibre processor Hemp Sense in Gilbert Plains. In Winkler, SWM International runs a fibre mill that makes flax and hemp fibre into specialty paper.
In 2019, Manitoba exported 11,300 tonnes of hemp products worth $84 million, mostly to the U.S. and South Korea.
Growers in the Dauphin areas formed the Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers Cooperative (PIHG) almost immediately after hemp was legalized. Hemp grows like a beanstock and in a wide variety of climate and soil types, making it suited to areas with more limited cropping options like the Parkland region. Hemp uses less water than traditional crops, produces higher yields and in smaller spaces and is hardy against pests and diseases. The basketball players of field crops get up to 10 – 12 feet high, and they don’t require staking like beer-making hops, which can reach 25 – 30 feet.
Pioneers like Don Dewar, Chris Dzisiak and Joe Federowich saw it as a good crop for their region and did everything right to grow both the crop and the industry. The growers formed the PIHG and shared tips on agronomy, ideas for equipment modification and researched markets. That included developing multiple varieties suited to their area. It even contracted with a plant breeder at the University of Guelph to breed new varieties. Today, Manitoba grows some of the finest hemp in the country thanks to climate and the work of those pioneer growers.
Chris Federowich, now vice-chair of PIHG, recalled how his dad, Joe, worked at getting hemp production started. Varieties were imported from Eastern Europe where there were similar climate conditions, and bred up in the Dauphin region. “We have multiple dual-purpose varieties (for grain and fibre) that are very strong, ” said Federowich. Their varieties grow six to eight feet tall, and can get as high as 10 feet, he said.
Even though the quality of hemp products is very good and even superior to existing products, muscling into mainstream markets has proved tough for hemp. Long-established supply chains are fiercely protective against competition in building products, said Federowich. But Federowich also thinks hemp suffers a stigma because of its relation to cannabis. “A lot of people still have it in their heads that it’s the root of all evil and that kind of stuff.”
A weak market has seen production fall across Western Canada. In Manitoba, production fell to 12,000 acres in 2019, compared to 21,000 acres in 2015. Manitoba is the third largest hemp producer in Canada, behind Saskatchewan and Alberta. Federowich has grown up to 6,000 acres of hemp in a year. In 2020, he planted just 500 acres.
The fibre companies that contracted with producers several years ago “just got a little bit ahead of themselves. The market wasn’t quite there yet,” said Jeff Kraynyk, industry development leader with Manitoba Agriculture. Therefore, farmers got stuck storing the hemp in their bins.
Despite the current impasse, the Manitoba government still sees a bright future for hemp. “The province definitely is still very optimistic, very bullish on hemp,” said Kraynyk.
Any new product has to jump through a lot of hoops before it gains acceptance. With hemp fibre for building materials, the crop is being slowed on the regulatory side by time-consuming testing needed to show it meets industry standards.
“Products made with hemp have demonstrated to be effective but it has taken time for industry to adopt them and feel comfortable with them,” said Kraynyk.
That’s despite hemp making some superior products to what’s on the market today. “Hempcrete” is a prime example: a material reinforced with hemp fibre that has comparable strength to concrete but is significantly lighter. “That’s a huge advantage when you’re talking about construction material transportation cost,” said Kraynyk. Manitoba has partnered with the federal government on analysis to prove hempcrete’s efficacy.
Another product getting a lot of testing by the two governments is hemp insulation that can be blown into buildings. Its main advantage appears to be price. “It looks to be very comparable in price or even have a price advantage,” Kraynyk said.
Again, the key is hemp is such a versatile crop with a wide array of applications. The industry calls them the 4Fs: food, fuel, feed and fibre. Fuel is its leftover biomass, and there’s tremendous amount of biomass (stock) in hemp that can be made into pellets for heating. “It’s called whole plant utilization,” Kraynyk said.
Manitoba also has a great climate for growing hemp and, thanks to the PIHG, growers have a leg up in terms of knowledge and history growing the crop.
As well, a second fibre plant is set to reopen in Gilbert Plains, in addition to Hemp Sense. Plains Industrial Hemp Processors, owned by interests in China, and which has been closed for several years, will be commissioning new equipment and is planning to reopen in 2021, said Kraynyk.
Another exciting market is for CBD oil. Federowich and a company have developed a machine to process CBD from hemp. “We’re looking at pioneering the commercial processing of hemp biomass to capture CBD straight off the field,” Federowich said.
Federowich is expecting to be in full CBD production in 2021. “I think CBD has an extremely strong future. We just need to access it in large volumes. There’s a lot of demand for it in big markets. They need to be guaranteed supply.”
That’s with flowers they used to throw away, more testament to the remarkable traits of this once illegal plant.
[i] The Ministry of Agriculture in Manitoba, by J.H. Ellis, 1971, Manitoba Department of Agriculture.