Seeding Hemp 2017

2017 marks The XY Hemp Corporation’s third year in farming and second hemp crop. Chad and Kayleigh traveled to Saskatchewan to seed the hemp with Al and Hélène of Breadroot farm. Kayleigh provides a quick update on how seeding went this year.

I arrived at the Farm on the afternoon of Saturday May 27th, 2017.  On my way to the home quarter, I stopped to check on the soon-to-be hemp field and saw mostly black soil. I got a warm welcome from Al and Hélène when I arrived at their home and we enjoyed a beer on the front deck. The wind was a bit unforgiving, so we cut cocktail hour short to warm up inside.

I worked on my computer most of the day Sunday, as Hélène had announced that we were going to tag and immunize the calves on Monday. The cows had all finished calving the day before I arrived and it was time to identify all the babies and give them their first vaccination. Monday morning I joined Hélène, Al, and Jonathan to round up the cows and calves. This was the closest that I have ever gotten to the livestock! The process involved placing an ear tag on each calve and injecting them with one dose of vaccine. I recorded each calves’ number and the date and our team of four finished before lunch.

cows and calves corralled before tagging and immunization

 

Tuesday afternoon I helped Hélène plant the lettuce and corn in the garden. Last summer, there were some extra peas and fava beans left over from our green manure ploughdown crop. Al was able to plant these extra seeds in two sections of the garden to provided some extra nutrients and organic material. The corn, another nitrogen hungry crop, was planted where the peas and fava beans were ploughed-in last summer. Hélène also plants her corn in the traditional “Three Sisters” grouping: peas, corn and squash are all planted close together to feed and protect one another.

Hélène in the garden

 

On Wednesday I went out the take pictures of the weeds emerging in the hemp field. The weeds emerging at this stage could provide some indications about the soil: thistles grow in tight soil with little air, while yellow flowered weeds thrive in sulfur depleted soils (pg. 65, Barber, 2014) . In the evening, I cleaned out the seed drill when Al finished seeding the wheat. This signalled that we were getting closer to preparing the hemp field! After emptying the wheat from the seed drill, I helped Al move all the machinery over to the hemp field. It was time to confirm that we were ready to seed!

Weeds in the hemp field: grass and wild oats with straw leftover from the ploughdown crop
Plantain: a medicinal weed
Another medicinal herb: dandelion!
Kayleigh cleaning the wheat from the seed drill

 

Wednesday night, Chad and I discussed our recent soil samples and the stages of the hemp field. We completed a successful ploughdown crop the year prior, including grazing a small heard of organic cattle on the land. The hemp field had been cultivated and harrowed once, and the weeds had emerged a second time. There was rain at the beginning of the week, and a long stretch of clear weather ahead. Our hemp farming mentor had suggested this precise crop rotation and assured us that even if the soil test didn’t indicate available nitrogen, it was there, mineralizing in the soil. Chad and I affirmed to one another that the hemp seeds had everything they needed to succeed. I left a note for Al on the breakfast table confirming our decision to proceed with the two final machinery operations: rodweeding and harrowing.

Thursday morning, Al left early to get started on the rodweeding. It was the hottest day yet, 30 degrees Celsius and clear skies. I worked inside on my computer and called potential custom harvesters about the fall hemp harvest. In the late afternoon, Al came in to declare a tire had gone flat on the rodweeder. He had a spare in  a junk equipment pile hidden behind some trees and he loaded the generator in the truck to power an impact wrench. I came along to pass him tools and help move vehicles.

These breakdowns always take longer than expected to repair and have unforeseen challenges. I learned this lesson fixing Austin Minis on the side of the road in Saskatchewan. This was a much larger tire to remove and replace, located between sharp ploughs and harrows. I am small enough to get into these tight spaces, but not strong enough to free rusted bolts. There I was, lying in the dirt in my lululemon pants, holding wrenches in place while Al used levers and raw determination to unscrew 30-year old bolts.  We managed to remove the large weights that keep the wheels from bouncing, and had almost freed the flat tire when a single bolt refused to come free. After 30 minutes of trying various strategies, we returned to the farm for a grinder. By grinding down a lip on the wheel, I was able to get a wrench in position so that it wouldn’t slip free and Al released the stubborn bolt. In another 45 minutes, the new tire was installed and Al was ready to finish the last hour of rodweeding left on the hemp field.

The forecast for Friday was mixed: heat and thunderstorms had been predicted throughout the week but the day started muggy and overcast. By the time I got up, Al had been out harrowing the hemp field for about two hours. Chad was driving in from Saskatoon and the possibility of seeding the hemp was becoming more and more real! I met with a Saskatchewan Crop Insurance adjuster in the hemp field just as Al was finishing the harrowing. Over lunch, we decided to fill the hopper with the hemp seed and start seeding in the afternoon.

Chad arrived at the farm just as a parade of vehicles was heading out to the hemp field. Al was driving the small case tractor, used to pull the seed drill, which was full of fuel. Hélène was carefully pulling the hopper of hemp seeds in the John Deere Tractor and I was following behind to pick-up Hélène and bring her back to the house. When we all arrived at the field there were hugs and handshakes then we jumped up on the seed drill to finish adding the hemp seeds. Ready to get into the activity, Chad offered to join Al in the tractor to drive the seed drill. They returned for dinner at about 8pm with 45 acres complete!

The last 7 acres to seed!

Saturday, June 3rd, was overcast and dreary but we were joyfully excited to finish seeding the hemp! Chad joined Al in the tractor again and jumped out to move large rocks and check how much hemp was left in the seed drill. With just seven acres left to seed, I came out to take pictures and see if there was anything they needed. In the afternoon, we helped Al move tractors to new fields and cleaned the remaining hemp from the seed drill. The sun came out and it was a hot windy day. I was grateful for the moisture in the soil and the straw from the cover crop holding our soil down against the strong winds.

My mantra for this year is “strong relationships and healthy harvests”. It was a pleasure to nurture our relationship with Al and Hélène of Breadroot farm by participating in all the activities on their farm. We are so grateful for their mentorship and partnership in our endeavour. I look forward to visiting them again at harvest in September for a healthy harvest!

Mentorship & Partnership

Learning to Combine 2016

For the 2017 hemp crop, Chad and I will be responsible for harvesting our hemp seeds. This will involve renting and operating a combine, or hiring another person to work with us. To ensure we understand how to operate a newer model combine, and gain first hand experience in the event that we harvest the crop alone, I spent 2 days at Larry Marshall’s farm learning to drive a combine.

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I arrived in Saskatchewan on September 18th and stayed with close family friends who live down the street from Larry. It was raining quite hard on the Sunday night, and I was worried we would be unable to combine over the next two days. Larry called at around 8pm to let me know that due to the rain, most of his team (his sons and another worker) would not be arriving early on Monday morning. It was starting to feel like I would be on a farm vacation rather than a learning experience.

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However, when I arrived at Larry’s around 11am Monday, he was confident that I would be able to combine that afternoon. I was stoked! Larry made lunch in the kitchen at the back of his large shop while I snacked on grapes fresh off the vine.

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After lunch, I went out to combine with Larry’s eldest son, Josh. We drove out to the field where the combine and grain truck were parked, checked the combine over and got to work. I rode next to Josh and asked lots of questions about which controls he was operating and how he decided what to do first and where to watch. Like driving a car, once something becomes a habit, it is difficult to break it down into steps. However, Josh did and excellent job explaining how he simultaneously watched the steering, the height of the table (where the hemp moves on a conveyor towards the centre of the combine) and the height of the reel (which pushes the hemp stalks towards the blades which cut the plant and move it onto the table).

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Suddenly, it was my turn to combine! Josh patiently explained the controls and the order in which the process is engaged. Most of the controls are operated with your right hand, while your left controls the steering wheel. It was definitely a struggle for me to follow the line of the row (steer straight), control the speed with the pressure in my right hand, and operate the height of the table and the reel with my right thumb. When I got confused or flustered about the height or tilt of the table and the height of the reel, I found that I accidentally accelerated (slightly, as combines move at about 2 to 6 km/h) thinking that the pressure would lift the table. It was a lot to learn, and I was so grateful for Josh’s patience and even more so when he called out directions such as “Table UP!” and “Reel DOWN!”.

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By 4pm I had combined about 5 rows and we had gone back over some patches that I missed. At this point, it started to rain again, so we emptied the combine of seeds, covered the grain truck and drove it back to Larry’s farm.

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The next day started about the same and Josh and I went out to the same field at around 1pm. When we arrived at the field, we inspected the combine for hemp wrapped around important parts. Inside the combine, the hemp often wraps around the rotor, which can lead to wrapping in other parts, and can sometimes cause fires. I discovered quite a bit of hemp wrapped around the front axel on the right side of the combine. We used dull kitchen knives, razor blades and pliers to cut and rip the hemp out of the places where it had wrapped. Much of the wrapping was most likely due to my driving: when we drove back over missed patches, I drove over the chaffe, which is the waste left behind the combine. This chaffe is mostly loose straw and wraps quite easily. Needless to say, you should not combine over the same spot twice!

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When the combine appeared to be free of hemp straw, we set out to do the perimeter of the next field. This must be done at least twice so that there is enough room for the combine to turn around. Halfway through our first round, the controls alerted us that there was a blockage inside the combine. We drove back over to the grain truck and climbed inside the back of the combine to investigate. It was clear that there was a lot of material stuck in the beater of the combine, and the only way to free it was to cut and rip until the beater could be rotated. Josh and I spent about 2 hours freeing the combine of all the hemp straw material trapped inside and had to call Larry to bring us another tool in order to use leverage to rotate the beater.

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Around 7pm, the combine was all clear again and we set out to finish the round so I could combine a few rows. When we cleared a small section so that I would be able to combine, the sun was almost set. I got behind the controls and drove about 10 feet before a pulley on  the feeder header (the front attachment with the table and the reel) broke. This was classic farming as I remember it: spend all day fixing things and when you think it’s time to work, something new breaks!

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In all, it was an unbelievable lesson in combining and farming. It was awesome to get to drive the combine, discuss the process, learn where fibres get wrapped, how to get them unwrapped and remember that farming is hard work. I am beyond grateful for the time Larry and Josh shared with me. There was also plenty of time to discuss organic farming practices such as effective microorganisms and beneficial fungi while it was raining. It was such a valuable experience and I can’t wait to be the most annoying backseat combine driver ever!

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Spring Seeding 2016

Hooray for Spring! Except spring is a very busy time for farming! And going forward, The XY Hemp Corporation will be spending more time doing research after harvest and more time planning for spring seeding during the winter. Let’s just say it’s been a bit of a rush to get everything together for this growing season, but now our plans appear to be in motion. In 2016, we’ll be taking a break from growing hemp and instead invest in our soil with a plough down crop. This will help suppress weeds and add nutrients to our soil which will support our 2017 hemp seed crop. The contract has been signed, the line of credit granted from ATB Financial, and now to plant the seeds and prepare for the inevitable set backs of farming.

The seeds we will be planting this year are 40/10 peas and faba beans. The peas have been suggested to us multiple times from our gracious mentor Larry Marshall. However, the peas were hard to find! On the other hand, the faba beans were bred at the University of Saskatchewan specifically for plough down crops. A plough down crop is when a field is planted with a rotational crop that you have no intention of harvesting. We’ll plant the peas and faba beans, then halfway through the season, before they (or the weeds) go to seed, we’ll cut the plants down and plough all the organic material into the soil. This process allows the roots of the legumes (peas and beans) to fix nitrogen in the soil while the plants grow. Then, when the plants shift focus to developing seeds instead of growing taller, the crop is cut down and ploughed into the field. This allows all the organic material to decompose in the soil. It will also suppress weeds by cutting down the competition before it goes to seed; anything that grows after the plough down should freeze and die in the fall before producing seeds. We would also like to maximize the nutrient content of the soil by having Al and Hélène’s organic, grass fed beef graze on the field before the plough down. However, that type of grazing and nutrient (manure) spreading is best done with a larger herd.

To facilitate our two year cropping plan, we altered our crop share agreement to cover 2016 and 2017. We also removed the cost sharing component of the agreement and now the XY Hemp Corporation will be paying 100% of the material costs and per acre farming operations provided by Breadroot Farms. As a result, we will also be earning all of the revenues from the hemp harvest in 2017. This would not be possible without the help of our bank, ATB Financial. We reached out to the branch where we were given a bank account in 2014, and the gracious and enthusiastic branch manager, Wendy Moyle, connected us with Jessie Pasquan. Jessie is in Peace River, Alberta (more evidence that our business can transcend distances) and she was incredible. She made it perfectly clear what information she needed me to provide, she took the time to understand our unconventional business model, and she advocated on our behave to ensure we got the line of credit we needed. We can’t thank Jessie enough and look forward to sharing our success with ATB.

In 2017, we will plant hemp on the field we are preparing this year. We hope to have more nitrogen available for the hemp and fewer weeds. This should improve our yield if we are given favourable weather conditions. We are excited to invest in our soil this season to improve our yield next year.

Cheers to the future!

Kayleigh

Vegreville Decortication Plant Visit: April 2015

We’re getting really excited for harvest; Chad and I leave for Saskatchewan on Sunday September 6th! Plans are being finalized and contingencies put in place. While we’re deciding what to do with our hemp fibres and how best to dry our hemp seeds, I thought I should post this short story from earlier this year. Chad and I actually wrote this together at Breadroot Farms in May, and I hope it gets you excited to read about harvesting organic hemp this fall. -K

Vegreville Decortication Plant Visit

Chad visited the Alberta Innovates and Alberta Bio Development Center Decortication Facility in Vegreville, AB, on April 30th, 2015. Patti Breland was extremely helpful in arranging the tour and Chad was able to thank her at the Alberta Sustainable Building Symposium. Byron James led the tour starting with a display of inspiring and innovative hemp products made from the raw materials processed by Alberta Innovates. The pilot facility produces two grades of processed hemp which are inputs into other processed hemp products.

The plant is housed in brick research facility and includes an addition made from structural steel to house a pelletizer and bail chopper. These two machines are the beginning and end of the hemp refining process: the bail chopper cuts the raw agricultural product into 1 foot sections and the pelletizer compresses hemp dust into solid biofuel. After the hemp stalk bales are chopped, they are transported to the conveyor belt which feeds the hammer mill.

The hammer mill is the primary decortication machine. This separates the long, thin “bast” fibres from the inner core of the hemp plant “hurd” or “shiv”- which is coarse and wood like- with a circular drum and hammer. The higher grade material must go through the hammer mill twice. The broken down material moves through ducts to the separator. At this stage, a series of screens separates the bast and hurd fibres. The ducts are useful for transporting the hemp fibers and collecting dust, which is later pressed into pelletized biofuel .

Once separated, the bast and the hurd  fibres move through these ducts to separate cleaners: hurd into the “shiv cleaning separator” and bast into the “step cleaner”. Hurd fibres are deposited into industrial totes and bast fibres are compressed into square bales. The hemp dust released by the process is captured in the duct work and compressed in solid bio-fuel by the “pelletizer”.
The tour of the pilot facility was extremely useful to see first hand how natural fibre technology is developed and refined in the Alberta bio-processing sector. We will be using this knowledge and these contacts to further our research into how to build the best hemp processing plant with the right mix of products and the least amount of waste.

What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name, would smell as sweet”

-W. Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

While a rose may smell as sweet by any other name, The XY Hemp Corporation sounds much sweeter to me than our previous numbered corporation. This week we are celebrating a small accomplishment: we have chosen a name for our company and made the change official!

At first, it may sound like a placeholder name but it was in fact chosen carefully to reflect our corporation culture and vision.

The XY Hemp Corporation is an ode to Canadian history. Canada was settled by corporate interests before the colonial powers of Britain and France decided to establish colonies and send settlers to the new country. Two powerful trading groups, The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, competed for domination in the fur trade in the late 18th and early 19th century. The Hudson’s Bay Company was centrally controlled from London and had very a strict hierarchy, whereas the NorthWest Company was headquartered in Montreal and consisted of partnerships between traders across the country. The NorthWest Company eventually achieved full integration when a London office was opened to market furs from the company. Many of the shareholders of the NorthWest company were voyageurs: traders who lived in Canada and spent their winters in Canadian wilderness. Although power was more decentralized in the NorthWest Company, there was disagreement between the winterers and the management in Montreal. In 1799, the western fur traders broke away from The NorthWest Company to form the New NorthWest Company, also known as the XY Company.

The XY Hemp Corporation aims to become the #1 hemp processing firm in Canada through partnerships and collaboration. We are independent thinkers and firmly rooted in western Canada. Innovation is the key to what makes us different. Our innovative partnership approach to enter the agriculture sector is just the beginning. Willing to take calculated risks and compete with bigger corporations, our competitive advantage is the flexibility to start small and grow into new markets.

Happy #HempDay

XX

-K