By Joy Gregory
If you grow it, they will buy it. That’s the message Colleen Stein and Elise St. Germain are promoting in north-central Alberta, where they’re building an industrial hemp seed and fibre processing business on the 30-acre site of a former lumber mill, just east of Barrhead.
“Diversity is the key to sustainability,” says Stein, who, in 2014, moved back to her home community from Toronto to manage a family business. The region she had once left for greener pastures now snagged her entrepreneurial attention, especially when she started learning about industrial hemp, a crop with agronomic benefits and nearly limitless end uses.
Stein saw that industrial hemp was attracting interest from Alberta farmers, and from companies that wanted to buy and process it for a wide range of products in health and wellness, construction and automobile industries. She dug deeper and knew she had found her next venture.
By 2018, she had convinced St. Germain, her daughter, to follow her from Toronto to Barrhead. Inspired by the potential of the old lumber mill site, they bought the property and started Alberta Hemp Works (AHW), a central hub for all involved in the emerging hemp industry, from growers to processors to manufacturers. Stein’s brothers, Gordon and Rudy, are her first growers.
Then, in August 2020, the mother-daughter team launched Iron Horse Hemp, which offers a line of hemp seed oil and meal products for the equine industry. Stein and St. Germain worked with riders, vets and retailers to build an Alberta market for their products and, in 2023, Iron Horse will be marketed nationally.
HEMP BY THE NUMBERS
“We believe industrial hemp creates the opportunity for small businesses to survive and thrive in rural Alberta”
An ancient crop, hemp was first used in China more than 10,000 years ago to create paper, fabric, rope and medicine. Although industrial hemp and cannabis come from the same plant species, they are definitely not the same plants: hemp has very low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychoactive compound, and higher levels of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating substance used in many human and animal health products.
Unlike cannabis, hemp is also grown for its extremely strong fibre, which can be used to make everything from clothing to concrete. As well, hemp seeds, oil and meal have high nutritional value, again both for humans and animals.
Canada legalized industrial hemp production in 1998. Growers must be licensed by Health Canada, which issued 903 licenses to cultivate industrial hemp in 2021. Fully half of the 383 licenses granted on the Prairies that year were issued in Alberta, where industrial hemp is grown on about 40,000 acres of Alberta cropland, says Manny Deol of the Alberta Hemp Alliance (AHA). That’s a small share of the 25.6 million acres of hay and field crops in Alberta, but it’s enough to make the province Canada’s leading hemp producer, even though Ontario has more cultivation licenses.
Alberta production is expected to rise when two new processing plants, each valued at more than $70 million, open in 2024. The first, located in southern Alberta, will process purified hemp oil, while the second, located in Vegreville, will process hemp fibre for composite materials typically used in the auto manufacturing sector, says Deol.
ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY
“Farmers will grow anything that will make them money, and this will make them money”
Back in Barrhead, Stein and St. Germain plan to scale up their fibre processing in 2024. They are working with R&D partners to develop hemp fibre-based construction materials that could be processed at Barrhead. Their repurposed lumber mill site includes a 25,000 sq. ft. plant and two 4,000 sq. ft. shops. All three buildings could be outfitted to process hemp fibre. Iron Horse’s equine markets are another avenue of expansion for the company.
Stein and St. Germain plan to buy hemp seed and stalk from farmers within a 300 km radius of their plant. That makes Gordon Stein’s participation critical. He trials new hemp varieties and willingly talks to curious growers about what he’s learning about hemp production and why it works in a traditional rotation. With Gordon’s help, AHW has attracted about a dozen local producers.
St. Germain says this close-to-home focus is a good fit with a personal and business ethic that recognizes the value of building a circular economy — a system of production and consumption that targets global challenges like climate change, biodiversity, soil health, pollution and waste. Industrial hemp ticks all of the right boxes for her and her mother.
For instance, hemp uses more carbon dioxide per acre than any other crop. It’s highly competitive, requires fewer inputs and can even be used to decontaminate soil of chemical toxins. Its deep roots loosen soil for future crops, while decomposing plant matter boosts soil organics.
Industrial hemp markets also target the whole plant, which cuts agricultural waste, says Stein. Hemp stems, seeds and flowers are used to produce CBD for wellness products, plus the protein- and antioxidant-rich seeds have applications in human and animal feed. Hemp stalks can be used as biodegradable mulch and for animal bedding, which is simultaneously absorbent with low dust.
Iron Horse Hemp produces a line of hemp seed oil and meal products for the equine industry. Pictured here are Colleen Stein (left) and Elise St. Germain,
mother and daughter duo behind Alberta Hemp Works, with Elise’s horse Herc.
The biggest market opportunities will come with the development of fibre processing industries that use the hemp stalk core (hurd) and the strong outer fibres (bast) to create products such as hempcrete (a concrete-like material), insulation and fibreboard. Stein and St. Germain envision their plant creating hemp construction products that will be used in local residential and commercial construction.
Deol echoes the Steins enthusiasm for the potential of industrial hemp. A report by the U.S. Agricultural Marketing Research Centre says industrial hemp can produce, per acre, 590 kg of straw, plus 316 kg of seed that can be processed into 240 kg of meal and 83 L of oil. “Farmers will grow anything that will make them money, and this will make them money,” says Deol.
It’s a thought that speaks to Colleen Stein’s vision for her company. Her goal is to make AHW a primary processor of hemp plants in the region, bringing some products to market and helping others do the same, all while putting money into the pockets of local producers and job creators. “We believe industrial hemp creates the opportunity for small businesses to survive and thrive in rural Alberta,” she says.