Canada: Harvesting Hemp At Hartacre Farms For Biofuel
By Aimee Pianosi, Canoe.ca
In a white cloud of pollen, 43 acres of hemp was harvested from Hartacre Farms last Tuesday. Herb Hart grew the crop in partnership with Performance Plants Inc. of Kingston, as part of a biofuels project for Lafarge Bath Cement plant, which is working on methods of reducing their reliance on fossil fuels.
According to Kevin Gellatly, director of biofuels business development and media relations for Performance Plants, this particular test plot faced some challenges.
“There were some tough conditions on the lower ground, it got rained out.” There were delays in planting, and then rain and more rain which soaked out some of the seeds.
Gellatly said they were hoping for four to five tonnes per acre, but final yield won’t be determined for a while.
Because it’s a test plot, the seed was provided to Hart, but he said the input costs for the entire season were much lower compared to corn, but similar to other crops. Based on soil tests at the beginning of the season, he added 100 pounds of potash, 25 pounds of 11-52-0 and 20 gallons of UAN. The test plot Hart used is a randomly-tiled field and he said “you can see the patterns of the tiles in the height of the plants.”
“I added no chemicals after planting and that’s one of the biggest savings right there,” he added.
One other positive impact of hemp is that it breaks the disease cycle of other crops, as it is added into a crop rotation, according to Gellatly.
Industrial hemp has been used for centuries for fine fibres, sail cloth, and rope. Some of the hemp Hart was harvesting was up to eight feet tall. Because of the length and strength of the fibres harvesting hemp is a special challenge, and Larry Palmateer of Tweed was brought in by Hart.
This hemp is destined for a furnace, so the strands were not preserved. Instead a special double ‘conditioning’ system on a disc-bine, notches the stalks at one inch intervals to aid in the drying.
“It’s the best machine we’ve found for hay and it helps condition it,” said Palmateer.
The mower is specialized to hemp because a normal mower would get gummed up by the long tough fibres. This is another of the cost factors that Palmateer, growers, and end users have to deal with. The same equipment used for corn and other grains can’t be used with the hemp.
In all, 20 hemp fields are being tested as well as a sterile corn variety. After its baled into square bales, it will be ground up to be fired at the same time as coal in the kiln furnace at Lafarge. There is a special grinder/chopper being installed on site at the plant.
According to Gellatly, there will be a test burn at Lafarge in October with all kinds of things being measured in the emissions, in the temperature of the burn, even the quality of the cement product using the alternative fuel source.
“Just making sure it’s a viable alternative to coal.”
Gellatly says all indications are that using biofuels will improve air quality.
“There’ll be no negatives, it will be very seamless,” he said.
To improve the hemp variety, which is called Anka, PPI uses an accelerated breeding program.
“We’re looking for any ways we can to increase the tonnes per acre,” said Gellatly.
“If you can increase the tonnage that’s going to decrease the price for Lafarge and still provide the farmers a good return.”
As well as all the tests at Lafarge, PPI will be conducting a three-year, detailed assessment of the impact of hemp cultivation on soil quality – a seed-to-flame life cycle assessment.
While Ontario is experiencing a wet summer, hemp crops grown in Western Canada will be good candidates for drought tolerance testing.
“When you’re trying to produce biomass, you just want it to keep growing and growing,” Gellatly said, noting that if suddenly Lafarge decides hemp is the way to go, tens of thousands of acres will be needed to supply the demand.
Gellatly said, “there is lot of pressure to reduce carbon emissions so they’re experimenting with replacing a percentage of coal with biomass.”
PPI is trying to improve the genetics of the hemp with increased yield, increased stress tolerance, and decreased cost per tonne.
“The whole objective for the biomass industry is to get to the price of coal,” he said. Currently biomass is about the double the price. It also has other challenges such as storage. Coal can be heaped, can get wet, and can be stored in varied conditions. The hemp is sensitive to light and moisture.