To Hemp, Hops and Haskap, add a Portion of Hope

(Image:  Flickr member twicepix)

The retail hemp market is an opportunity for emerging farmers. (Image: Flickr member twicepix)

Ask anyone what defined agriculture in Nova Scotia in the latter half of the 20th century and the quick answer is likely to be: Christmas trees and apples. For a province that used to produce 60 per cent of its own basic food requirements, somewhere along the way globalization and negligence dropped that to less than 10 per cent today.

But a group of clever, young, and inspired bureaucrats from Nova Scotia’s Department of Agriculture came together in August 2010 to start ThinkFarm – a program aimed at attracting and supporting young farmers and encouraging information-sharing and collaboration.

At their most recent one-day workshop in Wolfville, NS, entitled Hemp, Hops and Haskap: the Next Big Thing, experts in each area spoke about the benefits and pitfalls of leading the charge to make agriculture more diverse and profitable. If attendance numbers were any indication – more than 160 people – ThinkFarm appears to have the perfect antidote to a post-MBA world: hip farmers, who produce hip crops.

HEMP FOR HOME AND INDUSTRY

The versatility of hemp is unparalleled, which is why it has been cultivated for thousands of years, and used in everything from industrial textiles to materials for the automotive, building and paper sectors, to cookies, oils, fashion and even beer. It’s only lately that a puritanical mindset has curtailed the cultivation of this important crop. Since the late 1930s, hemp has been carefully restricted in both the United States and Canada.

“Under current US drug policy, the Drug Enforcement Agency considers all cannabis varieties, including hemp, a controlled substance,” says Anndrea Hermann, an expert consultant in the North American hemp industry, who spoke at the workshop.

“Despite legitimate opportunities for hemp use, changes to policy have been slow because of concerns around undermining the agency’s drug enforcement efforts and regulation of the production and distribution of marijuana.” Despite this, she says there is a legal precedent to allow hemp products in the US, which makes it a very lucrative market and one that “continues to expand.”

In 1998, Health Canada recognized the need to explore hemp for its agricultural and industrial potential, establishing the Office of Controlled Substances and within that, the Industrial Hemp Section. It was charged with giving “the agricultural and industrial sectors an opportunity to grow and exploit industrial hemp in a controlled fashion,” Hermann says. “I have a lot of respect for how Health Canada has approached their regulation.”

From hemp cultivars, to acceptable levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), to annual applications and licensing around transport, processing, and export, Health Canada strictly oversees hemp growing in Canada. The question is, with all the regulatory hoops to jump through, and annual testing fees tallying as much as $400, is it worth it?

“The US retail market for hemp products is about $450 million,” Hermann says. “The primary source for ingredients used in those products comes from Canada.” At present, farmers can expect to see $200-$300 profit per acre, she says. And, with hemp use continuing to expand, there’s no reason not to expect a bright future.

Resources for further information on hemp:

HOP DREAMS

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A hop bud (humulus lupulus) (Image: Wikipedia user LuckyStarr)

Hops are to the Czech Republic what apples are to Nova Scotia. In fact, the Czech Republic sits among the top five hop producers in the world, and its populace routinely tops the chart for per capita beer consumption. So when Viliam Zvalo, a Czech transplant to Nova Scotia and a horticulturalist with Perennia, speaks as keynote presenter on the potential of hop production in the province, he’s speaking from a place of authority.

“Where grapes grow, hops will do well,” Zvalo says. Warmer climates are better so the natural focus in Nova Scotia is the Annapolis Valley, he advises, although that’s not to say they couldn’t grow in other parts of the province. “There are microclimates where it would be possible, but as the growing season gets shorter, yield and quality are affected.” In addition, growing areas prone to high humidity and fog should be avoided, as hop plants are susceptible to disease.

In the interest of providing a complete picture, Zvalo has a few additional cautions for those looking to get into hop production.

In years when the growing season is ideal, “hop harvest usually takes place in mid-to-late August.” If harvest slips into September and the weather turns cool and wet (as is apt to happen in a maritime climate), “that will impact the quality of the hop,” he says. In Nova Scotia, “it’s likely that the timing of hop maturity will vary greatly from year to year.”

There is a dizzying array of other practical and budgetary considerations when deciding whether to make the leap into hop production: soil quality and nutrients; organic versus non-organic production methods; techniques for trellising (high or low); varietals that balance yield and character, disease resistance, and climate suitability. “Hops are demanding in terms of fertility,” says Zvalo, and they are thirsty, too. “Each plant requires about 50 litres of water per week throughout the summer.” If irrigation wasn’t already on the list of considerations, add it, along with pest and disease management strategies.

“I don’t want to discourage anyone, but small producers will have to harvest by hand and that is not an easy task,” he says, mostly because of the small thorns found on the plant. In the end, labour must be factored into overall costing to ensure accurate return-on-investment calculations.

With what appears to be formidable hurdles to hop production, is there potential for decent returns for farmers in Nova Scotia? “The microbrewing market is expanding rapidly in the Western world,” say Zvalo. “That’s the market small producers would focus upon.”

Local producers might pay double or triple for locally grown hops versus imports, he adds. The key is to develop relationships with local microbreweries and understand their expectations. As infrastructure grows around hop production – e.g., harvesters, dryers and pelletizers – and as producers organize the industry, expect to see production and marketability continue to grow.

Resources for further information on hops:

HASKAP IN HAND

The haskap berry is thought to have exceptionally high levels of antioxidants. (Image: LaHave Forests)

The haskap berry is thought to have exceptionally high levels of antioxidants. (Image: LaHave Forests)

It seems like each year newspaper and magazine headlines are dominated by some new superfruit revelation. Think Açai, Goji, Noni and Guarana, just to name a few of the exotic treasures on a crowded list of nutrient-dense, fleetingly popular berries and fruits.

Of course, the vast majority of these won’t grow in Nova Scotia. But Haskap does. And there’s been a lot of buzz about developing domestic as well as foreign markets for this amazing little blue superberry.

“The fresh market is easy to get into,” says David Ernst, who along with his wife, Evelyn, own Terra Beata Cranberry Farm just outside Lunenburg, NS. “Whether its cranberries or haskap, as soon as you have fresh berries and you can get them to a customer, you can develop a fresh berry business.”

The Ernsts know what they’re talking about. Having started their farm in 1998 during a wave of enthusiasm and excitement for cranberries, their advice for those getting into haskap growing is sage and relevant: stay the course, but remain flexible.

“We thought we would open a cranberry U-pick because there weren’t any others around,” Ernst says. “What we learned is people will come out to pick cranberries in October and November despite the weather because they wanted the experience with their families, not to fill their freezers.” He says it was a completely different result than they expected, with the added bonus of giving his business exposure, publicity and an opportunity to meet face-to-face with customers.

But the move from selling fresh cranberries into adding value through processing came as a bit of a revelation. At an autumn fair, rather than just showing up with bags of cranberries, “we made four different cranberry products and had recipe cards printed out,” Ernst says. “More than half the people said ‘I don’t want to buy a bag of cranberries and take a recipe card, can you sell me a jar of product, please.’” For the Ernsts, processing their produce was a smart evolution for their business.

Haskaps differ greatly from cranberries in one key area. With the latter, there are a lot of worldwide producers, making them a commodity where price is dictated by supply. “Haskaps are not in a commodity situation,” Evelyn Ernst says, “so first into the marketplace will probably get to set the price.” As with any product, marketing strategies are critical to success. “If Haskap can be marketed as a superfruit with amazing nutrient value and limited supply, there are customers who will pay a pretty penny,” she says.

These are exciting times for Haskap berries. The Nova Scotia Haskap Growers Association is helping support growers as they establish and expand their crops, and plans are in development for a cooperative marketing group. Still, the wealth of experience amassed by the Ernsts could save newcomers some serious headaches.

“Have a plan to sell your fruit before you plant,” Evelyn says. “Make sure your plan floats your farm, even if you get half the expected price or half the expected yield [for your fruit]. And remember, it’s not ‘If you grow it, they will come,’ it’s ‘If you market it, they will come.’”

Resources for further information on haskap:

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