How an Alberta facility is using Ukrainian seeds to unlock hemp's true potential
Canadian Rockies Hemp Corp. opened last year in Bruderheim, Alta.
Nestled inside a processing plant in Bruderheim, Alta., lie sacks of hemp seeds from the Institute of Bast Crops in Ukraine.
The institute, the country's national academy for agrarian sciences, is in northeast Ukraine, a region that was under Russian occupation last year.
In an effort to help preserve and grow the institute's work, the seeds were brought over by the Canadian Rockies Hemp Corp., 60 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
To get the seeds to Canada, the institute hired Hungarian truck drivers to go through Russian checkpoints and eventually into Poland and then Germany.
"They're extremely resilient people and it's amazing what they're able to do even through these tough times," said Aaron Barr, CEO of Canadian Rockies Hemp, which has become one of the largest hemp processors in Canada since opening last fall.
The Ukrainian seeds will be offered to local farmers as they are well-suited to grow in Alberta, producing the more fibrous industrial hemp, which can be split into different components through a process called decortication.
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The process separates the fibres from the hurds, the woody inner cores of hemp stalks.
Fibre can be turned into thread for textiles and hurd can be used to make animal bedding.
Hemp can be made into compostable plastics, vehicle door panels, dashboards, pulp, paper and hempcrete, which is similar to concrete.
"The hippies have been right about this product for years," Barr said.
"It's been touted as kind of a miracle plant."
Health Canada licenses and regulates the industrial hemp industry. The regulatory body issued 1,050 permits in 2021, up from 542 in 2018. Alberta cultivated more than 8,000 hectares of industrial hemp in 2021, more than any other province.
Industrial hemp refers to any part of the cannabis plant, where THC concentration is less than 0.3 per cent. Cannabis for recreational use can be 30 per cent THC.
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In a field outside the Canadian Rockies Hemp facility, there's 25,000 bales waiting to be processed, with another 15,000 on the way.
"We call it hemp mountain," said chief operations officer Spencer Tighe. "For most farming operations you wouldn't see this many bales."
Canadian Rockies Hemp supplies farmers with seeds and also harvests the crop.
"They're doing the things normally the farmer would do," said Chris Allam, who grows hemp for the corporation on a farm near Redwater.
Last year, hemp made up about 10 per cent of Allam's crops. He also grows wheat, canola and salad beans.
Hemp is a good crop to grow, Allam said, because it's relatively straightforward, requiring little fertilizer. It also has a large taproot that breaks up the soil, which is rejuvenated by leaf litter.
Since the plant can be used to make compostable products and replace single-use plastics, it's highly attractive, he said.
"It's probably the answer to pollution."
Local economic boon
By next year, the facility plans to ramp up production by processing up to 50,000 acres of hemp and producing 50,000 tonnes of fibre and more than 100,000 tonnes of hurd, employing around 100 workers.
Karl Hauch, mayor of the town of Bruderheim, population 1,400, welcomes the company's growth.
"That's just fantastic news," Hauch said. "Paying taxes, employing people, creating spin-off businesses — those are huge pluses for our community."