Bio-fibre industry lagging in Canada

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer

The bio-fibre industry is one area where Canadian agriculture is lagging behind Europe and other parts of the world. Bio-fibre is growing crops with high quality straw which can be broken down and mixed into industrial components such as plastics, paper and textiles. It is one of the agricultural industries with the largest potential in the world for growth, but is still a relatively undeveloped market in Canada.

One of those hoping to change that is Alvin Ulrich, owner and founder of Biolin Research Inc. in Elstow, Saskatchewan. Ulrich is one of the only processors of bio-fibre flax in western Canada. He is working closely with the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission to research and showcase the potential uses of flax bio-fibre. He hopes to encourage more producers to give his industry a closer look.

“This is a whole other world we are not aware of in western Canada,” says Ulrich. “Why not flax? Here is something that’s the more I worked with it, the more potential there seemed to be. Probably half the plastics we use have glass fibre in them for reinforcing. Even things like cell phone covers and computer parts. The glass fibre is there to make it lighter weight, stronger and thinner. In Europe they have found out that you could often substitute flax fibre for the glass fibre. One of the advantages is it is about half the weight of glass fibre.”

Automobile parts companies, construction companies, computer parts manufacturers and a slew of other plastic fibre glass related products; all are taking note of bio-fibre’s potential to revolutionize their industries.

“There are some big glass fibre makers, and many who are using glass fibre in their industries, but those who do use it also know it has some disadvantages,” says Ulrich. “They are telling us they would like to use flax or hemp, but they have this problem where their buyers are normally other businesses. And they need quantity and volume because they are going to put it in their plastic products, and put it in their catalogues; they need to know they can supply those products for two years or give it to their distributors and count on getting it.”

Ulrich gives the example of fibre glass insulation in comparison to flax fibre insulation to drive home his point.

“Right now the price for bio-fibre insulation is about 20 per cent higher than fibre glass mats,” says Ulrich. “However, flax insulation doesn’t get itchy or scratchy and is much easier to handle. And when you don’t want it anymore, you can shred it in a field and next year it will compost. Glass fibre insulation mats have to go to landfill and it might last 1,000 years before they break down. It doesn’t burn and it’s hard to recycle.”

Ulrich says most farmers he has talked to about the possibility of growing quality bio-fibre flax do see the upside, but also many are reluctant to change their seeding and harvesting practices to ensure the highest quality of bio-fibre can be produced.

“The challenge with using salvaged oilseed flax straw is most farmers don’t normally plant more than five or ten per cent of their land to flax. It’s kind of thought of as a gamble crop for many farmers. So if someone asks: Are you ever going to get rich from selling your straw? Well no, probably not. So then you ask: Would you do something extra with it? And they will say: Sure, if it fits in. So sometimes they are hesitating to do something which would improve the fibre quality. They would just like to drop it out of the combine and you should come the next day and bale it up and take away their problem. That kind of straw is very limited in use from an industrial fibre point of view.”

Ulrich says the best prospect to get more farmers on board with growing better flax bio-fibre is to get them thinking about growing acres dedicated to flax straw rather than the seed. But he also feels it is more likely that a hybrid flax industry will evolve in Canada where more acres will be dedicated to growing bio-fibre, and this supply will be supplemented by salvaged oilseed straw to make up the volume the manufacturers require.

“With dedicated fibre crops you don’t need to have the mature sort of seed,” explains  Ulrich. “With flax you might be looking at 85 days that way; certainly no more than 110 days. That’s if you are looking at growing for fibre, but you have to be willing to do other things to make sure you get that quality. There are probably ten things you have to do to push up the yield of that fibre crop, but we (in the industry) know those things and can walk you through it. Financially it is quite attractive compared to other things you can grow in 85 days.”

Another major bio-fibre crop with good industry prospects in the future is hemp. Alberta grows about one quarter of Canada’s total hemp yield, and by far the largest majority of that is grown in southern Alberta.

Jan Slaski, Senior Researcher with Alberta Innovates -Technology Futures, is known as one of the main boosters of hemp and bio-fibre in Canada. Slaski manages a processing facility in Vegreville which works closely with the automobile and construction industries to produce new hemp-based bio-fibre products. Slaski says since hemp became legal to grow in Canada in 1998 the sector has had it challenges, but has also seen a phenomenal uptick in dedicated hemp acres grown in Canada.

The most difficult challenge in the beginning was convincing farmers to give it a try, and look past some of the misconceptions about this amazing plant.

“Making a joint with industrial hemp leaves is like drinking non-alcoholic beer,” says Slaski with a laugh. “It has a very low THC compared to marijuana. It took the public a long time to understand this. We are now doing way better as that public is recognizing these differences. We are not quite there yet, but it is getting better. What makes me excited now is we are seeing three or more value chain contributors making money. That says to me this (bio-fibre) industry is going to happen. And it’s only going to grow.”

Slaski says many Alberta builders are already utilizing “Hemcrete,” blocks of hemp fibre, lime, water and binder, to construct thousands of new homes across the province. In fact the demand is growing all the time.

“This material has exquisite construction and insulation properties. You don’t have to add extra insulation because hemp fibre, which is a component of the this block, provides natural “R” value up to 40.  Homes or buildings made from this material also have a high resistance to fire. And it adds that green value many home buyers are looking for.”

Slaski says the automobile industry has been chomping at the bit for more hemp bio-fibre based products for nearly two decades as well. He recalls how his eyes became open to this enormous fact 12 years ago at Hemp Alliance conference in Ontario when a highly placed auto exec. addressed the hemp growers present.

“He said the automotive industry is prepared to buy your hemp fibre,” remembers Slaski. “But, you have to deliver the quota you agreed to in quantities and qualities both parties agreed to. We don’t care if it was raining or flooding or there was drought. We don’t care. We have two million cars to produce. At that time the hemp industry was not ready. We only had 2,000 acres planted in all of Canada. All my efforts since then have been to make sure that we can deliver. And last year, having over 100,000 acres seeded, we now have a sufficient acreage to make sure a drought in Alberta, for example, wouldn’t stop Ford manufacturing in the Detroit/ Windsor corridor from making their car parts.”

Slaski admits growing quality hemp straw for bio-fibre takes some knack and requires a new way of thinking about farming for those wanting to get into it.

“With conventional combines, in particular, when you are harvesting the taller varieties you have to handle more stalks which are essential to industrial fibre applications, it could be a nightmare for farmers who don’t know how to harvest the hemp fibre. You definitely have to do your homework before you start growing hemp. It’s a crop of special needs. We will sort out these equipment issues as the industry continues to grow. We are currently putting together a hemp harvest guide to help farmers learn how to harvest for hemp fibres, and how to do it properly.”

Slaski says there are already some industry pioneers in the Alberta farming community who understand the huge hemp and bio-fibre potential and want to be a part of it.

“The last few years there has been a 25-30 per cent increase in acreage seeded on an annual basis. Whenever I ask farmers across Alberta why don’t you want to grow hemp? They answer: ‘Because I want to make money.’ There is money in this crop. Up until last year 99 per cent of the hemp crop was grown for grain under contract from major processors; now with all these bio-fibre related opportunities we’re are seeing the first acres being contracted exclusively for fibre. From now on you will be seeing more and more acres grown for fibre. And there is the potential for farmers to double harvest for both the grain and the fibre applications.”