The short version is that 2017 hemp crop was overtaken by wild oats and could not be harvested. I’ll tell you the long version to flesh out the story to provide some insights into organic hemp farming and entrepreneurship.
On the morning of Friday, June 2nd, Al and I began seeding the hemp while Chad drove the final stretch from Edmonton to Breadroot Farms. While Al made the first few passes on the field in the tractor pulling the seed drill, I met with our Saskatchewan Crop Insurance (SCIC) Adjuster. Ben from SCIC and I reviewed the weed control and nutrient process implemented on our field. As you may recall, in 2016 The XY Hemp Corporation grew a cover crop of peas and fava beans to fix nitrogen in the soil and control weeds. I described this process to Ben as we looked at the current moisture in the field and discussed the operations that had been completed on the hemp field prior to seeding. The moisture was about a centimeter below the surface, the soil was warm and conditions looked great for the hemp crop.
A few weeks later, Al and Helene sent Chad and I pictures of a beautiful green blanket covering the hemp field. The hemp seeds germinated nicely and covered the field. A few large noticeable weeds such as thistle and plantain were visible but otherwise the crop looked promising. F*$k Yeah!
A few weeks after that, things changed. Grasses started appearing over the hemp plants and the hemp seemed to stop growing, getting stuck at about 15cm to 20cm.
Ever the hopeful farmers, Chad and I continued to aggressively search for someone to harvest the hemp. This was the other major challenge we faced: no one wanted to be paid to combine a 75-acre hemp field. I spoke with every custom combine company and family in Saskatchewan and followed up with all of their recommendations. Given hemp’s reputation as a challenging crop to harvest, our relatively small acreage and our somewhat remote location (even for Saskatchewan), some people I spoke with were offended I even asked. Many were regrettably already completely booked, and some were intrigued and interested, but everyone I spoke with was ultimately unwilling to combine the field. Possibilities such as buying a vintage John Deere, customizing it to harvest hemp, and reselling after the harvest were being seriously considered.
When we spoke with Al and Helene again in early August, I was still hopeful we would find a saviour to harvest the field. However, the outlook on the hemp field was grim. In their assessment, it was worse than our 2015 crop (which had not been meticulously prepared like our 2017 field). They sent along photos that confirmed the disappointment – a field of wild oats rather than hemp.
Killing wild oats is one of the primary reasons conventional farmers use glyphosate. As organic farmers, controlling weeds is something that must be done through careful crop rotations rather than chemical applications. The conditions this year were simply better for the wild oats than for the hemp.
After this devastating conversation, I called in to the SCIC office to initiate our claim. Ben called me back right away and told me he had been concerned about the field, which he passed regularly on his commute, and that he would write his report on the field as soon as possible. His assessment echoed that of Al and Helene: many small hemp plants dwarfed by wild oats, due to dry conditions.
Chad and I are immensely grateful we purchased insurance for this crop. We invested heavily into the preparation of the field, the seeds and the machinery operations required to make it happen. The insurance claim helped mitigated our losses, exactly as intended.
Looking forward, Chad and I are committed to organic farming. We plan to grow hemp on smaller scales to increase our knowledge of growing and learn new approaches to hemp production. We are also still looking for land access in Alberta or BC to allow us to be more active in farming.
We can’t thank Hélène Tremblay-Boyko and Al Boyko enough for their guidance and mentorship. This crop marks the end of our formal business relationship and we have learned so much from each of them. Anyone looking to settle on the land and learn organic agriculture should get in touch with Breadroot Farms ASAP before their land is sold to another young family.