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September 12, 2011 - Vegreville, Alberta - Viterra’s Chief Flax Breeder Dr. Paul Dribnenki stands in a field of 14,000 flax plots. Each plot is a different strain of northern flax and is part of a $3 million research project focused on redesigning flax so it is easier to grow in the central and northern prairies.

The 37-acre flax nursery, one of the largest in the world, was the first stop on a tour near Vegreville, Alberta showcasing new agriculture sector opportunities emerging as a result of research and development on flax and industrial hemp. The tour, organized by Alberta Biomaterials Development Centre (ABDC), was attended by over 65 crop producers, manufacturers and others interested in biomaterials. The tour also included a walk-through of the new fibre processing facility at Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures (Tech Futures) in Vegreville funded by ABDC.

Dr. Dribnenki explained how the Northern adapted flax project is designed to develop new flax varieties. “These varieties will be higher yielding and easier to grow in central / northern Alberta and the Peace River region,” he says. The flax in some plots is almost twice as tall as others, which results in a higher amount of fibre suitable for the production of sustainable products, such as fabrics, composites, insulation and paper.

Viterra anticipates Northern adapted flax varieties will soon be introduced to the market. “Flax can be quite lucrative at $14-$16 per bushel,” says Dr. Dribnenki. Northern varieties will be easier for farmers to grow and allow use of the whole plant from seed to stem fibre. Seed can be sold in traditional flax markets and in the health food market where the demand for flax omega 3 fatty acids is increasing. Flax stem fibre, traditionally a waste product, holds potential and value as a key ingredient in sustainable products such as natural building insulation. In growing flax, Alberta farmers will contribute to sustainable practices that help society more generally in the pursuit of environmentally friendly alternatives.

After the flax nursery visit, Tech Futures researcher Dr. Jan Slaski and an Edmonton business owner interested in the application of hemp fibres had a tug-of-war with a hemp plant – demonstrating hemp’s fibre strength, one of the plant’s superstar qualities for making new sustainable products, from building materials to car parts. Dr. Slaski develops industrial hemp varieties suitable for Alberta.

“Industrial hemp needs different qualities than hemp grown for use in health foods or oils, he explains. “Tech Futures is breeding hemp with the highest quantity and quality of fibre, and this is why the plants are tall and slender.” The fibres needed for textiles, biocomposites and other biomaterials are found in the hemp stalk.

The day finished with a demonstration of how the value in flax, hemp or kenaf (jute) is unlocked by processing. “Plant fibres are different sizes, shapes and weights. The processing equipment separates these fibres, unlocking the value of industrial fibre crops,” says Tech Futures’ processing plant manager Byron James. “Short (hurd) fibres can be used for biocomposites such as building materials, and long (bast) fibres are suitable for textiles.” The processing plant is an ABDC funded and supported initiative thatenables industry to demonstrate, at a pilot plant scale, market opportunities for new and innovative, sustainable products.

The Northern adapted flax project is administered by SaskFlax and has a breeding component managed by Viterra and an agronomic component managed by Tech Futures.

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The Alberta Biomaterials Resource Centre (ABDC) is a virtual centre that offers entrepreneurs and businesses the collective research strengths of Tech Futures, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development and Sustainable Resources Development.

Tech Futures is a service organization for technical industries that works to accelerate the growth of prosperous business in Alberta. 

For more information:

Jennifer Moncion
Business Partner – Communications
Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures
Vegreville, AB
Tel: 780-632-8409
Mobile: 780-603-8940
Jennifer.Moncion [at] albertainnovates.ca