As fibres go, hemp is old news, yet since being legalised for human consumption, it’s grabbing headlines, sometimes for the wrong reasons.
Hemp has been grown and used across the globe for thousands of years. It is known for its strength, breathability, durability, sustainability, UV protection, and has been the fibre of choice for sails and ropes throughout maritime history.
Believed to have originated in the highlands of the Himalayas, it has been farmed and cultivated in China since at least 8000 BC. The Japanese have been farming hemp for centuries, too.
Lauchlan Grout, from Hemp Farms Australia, said hemp can be grown almost anywhere.
“The Russians even grew hemp in Chernobyl to get rid of radiation in the soil,” he said.
Queensland-based Lauchlan and business partner Harrison Lee have spent years developing hemp seed varieties suitable for Australian climates.
“It is a weed so it will fight, kick, cry, bleed and keep fighting until it gets up and reproduces itself. It’s an incredible plant.”
The nitty gritty
Hemp – a variety of the cannabis sativa plant species – has been grown in Australia as an industrial product for two decades.
Primary Industries and Regions SA defines industrial hemp as: “A plant or any part of a plant (including seed) from the Cannabis genus that has been specifically bred to have tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels in the leaves and flowering heads of not more than one per cent.”
The very low concentration of THC in industrial hemp plants means they have none of the psychoactive (mind altering) effects associated with illicit cannabis varieties with higher THC concentrations (often called marijuana).
Industrial hemp is cultivated for fibre production – used in industrial and consumer textiles, paper and building materials – and for seed to make hemp seed oil for use in industrial products, cosmetics and food products.
There are three usable parts of the hemp plant: the inner fibres (hurd), the outer fibres (bast) and the seeds.
The fast-growing, herbaceous, annual plant can grow in height from 1.5 to 5 metres, has a stem diameter of up to four centimetres and a deep taproot.
“It goes very, very deep,” Lauchlan said. “If you have very sandy, loamy soil and water just drains through a metre and a half deep, that hemp taproot will actually get down a metre and a half deep and access that water. Most other crops don’t have the vigour to do that.”
In March 2017, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand approved industrial hemp seed foods as safe for consumption provided they contain no more than the prescribed THC level and may provide a useful alternative dietary source of nutrients and polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly omega-3 fatty acids.
On 12 November 2017, the sale of food derived from the seeds of industrial hemp in Australia was legalised.
“That was the game-changer,” Lauchlan said.
Flow on effect
According to Klara Marosszeky, managing director of the Australian Hemp Masonry company, the impact of legalisation has been huge.
“The lack of legislation perpetuated a stigma based on misinformation,” she said. “We have gone from fighting for legislative change for years, to food, fibre and medicinal suddenly all being legal.
“They’re all heavily regulated, so there’s plenty of red tape but it’s no longer a case of simply closed doors for no good reason, which is very exciting.”
Hemp Farm Masonry supplies Australian developed and manufactured BCA compliant hemp lime construction materials and processes. It also specialises in hemp building advice and training and works with farmers to encourage sustainable hemp farming.
The company currently buys hemp from a co-op in the Hunter Valley.
“We’re also working with farmers in Western Australia and South Australia because there’s interest in building in both states and the ideal carbon scenario would be regional supply of hemp,” Klara said.
“Tasmania continues to build on its established industry, New South Wales has definitely embraced hemp, Queensland is still waiting for some legislative change before they get into production but farmers and businesses are ready to go,” she said.
“South Australia has just issued its first licences but there is quite strong farming interest, Victoria is getting into production and there’s also interest in fibre production there, and Western Australia has established a few farming co-ops in the past 12 months so things are underway there as well. We really just have the Northern Territory to go.”
Hemp associations in each state help spread the word.
“This will grow to be a very strong industry in Australia and globally. It makes ecological sense because of the biomass the crops can produce, the benefits to the soil and the lower inputs required to farm it and in this case it’s a plant that can be used to make a quite amazing array of products,” Klara said.
“At the moment we have a lot of Australian farmers learning to farm and harvest hemp, but we still have a shortage of Australian seed, and there are challenges in getting effective processing in place for use of the various components of the plant for manufacturing different industrial products.
“I’m confident that will all come because there is a lot of enthusiasm and there is a strong and growing global and domestic demand for hemp products.”
Educate and cultivate
Research led Hemp Farms Australia co-founder Lauchlan to the hemp industry after working for privately owned beef company Australian Country Choice.
“I learnt a lot about products from privately-owned, vertically integrated supply chains. A strong supply chain is vital to support a new commodity.”
He noticed an opportunity in the Australian agribusiness sector and jumped on it. There were only 67 industrial hemp licenses in Australia when he and his business partner applied at the beginning of 2013.
“The production of industrial hemp was nowhere near what I thought it should be and that was purely because it was not legal for human consumption. There was no real reason to mass-produce it.
“Nevertheless, we sought out genetics and seeds and put a crop in – we really just had a crack.”
Their first crop, planted in Queensland, failed miserably.
“We learnt a lot from it,” he said.
From there they’ve worked on planting and cultivating with other growers across New South Wales and Queensland and now plant up to 150 hectares, depending on the year.
They’re happy to share advice.
“We’ve been able to gain access to key varieties in Australia that are locally bred. That allows us to really open up opportunities for other people wanting to get involved – we are happy to help others join the cause,” Lauchlan said.
“We have pretty much structured our business to be not only a seed supplier and genetics researching body but also grow and distribute large quantity of primary hemp components.
“Our view is don’t try to re-invent the wheel, just upgrade the tyres.”
In a report released in 2017, AgriFutures Australia stated that more research on home turf is needed.
“With a growing international demand for natural fibres that don’t use many chemicals, industrial hemp has the potential to be a significant industry for Australian growers,” the report said.
“However, the economics of industrial hemp production and marketing in Australia remain unclear. Most global production of industrial hemp is undertaken with low mechanisation and high labour inputs; leaving Australia in a potentially uncompetitive position. Potential hemp growers also face a number of challenges including a low scale of production, incomplete agronomic information, limited varieties, imperfect mechanisation for harvesting and no major processing infrastructure or long-term markets.
“While hemp’s range of versatile end uses provides some optimism for industry expansion, it may be unsuitable to large-scale development in Australia unless viable mechanised harvesting, handling and processing can be developed,” the report concludes.
“It’s not a 100 per cent easy crop to grow,” Lauchlan said.
“You need to look after it. You need to understand how to grow the crop and what roadblocks you could run into.”
AgriFutures Australia advises that hemp seeds can be sown using a conventional disc drill, to a depth of about 25mm. A single header combine harvester can be used but care should be taken to ensure tough fibres do not wind around machinery. It is this lack of specialised mechanical harvesting and processing equipment that has been identified as limiting the growth of the industrial hemp industry in Australia.
“We use normal air seeders or precision clampers,” Lauchlan said.
“Flood irrigation is not recommended for hemp cropping. Depending on the region, an irrigation system may also be required to ensure an adequate water supply.” Harvesting of hemp for fibre occurs as soon as the last pollen is shed but before seed sets, which is normally about 70 to 90 days after planting. Harvesting for seed would occur four to six weeks later than fibre harvest, when 60 to 70 per cent of the seed has ripened. Birds will very rapidly strip seed from hemp plants and so harvesting usually begins as soon as there are signs of stripping.
Industrial hemp is cut and dried (retted) in the paddock before being baled. Depending on the weather, retting will take 14 to 21 days to complete and baling can be done with any kind of baler. When storing the bales, the moisture content of the stalks should not exceed 15 per cent, as this will cause the plant to rot. Bales can be stored in dry places, including storage sheds, barns or any other covered storage.
Need for seeds
According to Klara, a viable and secure seed supply and understanding of genetics is essential and some effort is required to source seed.
“There is some imported seed available but many of the varieties are only now being trialled to see how they produce in different regions and in Australian conditions,” Klara said.
“The few Australian varieties are still in short supply but they’re currently being bulked up. Unfortunately the process to get approval for food was so long and the feedback from government was always so cautious, that the industry wasn’t confident that approval would actually happen. We were given very mixed messages.
“There is a lot of market development work yet to be done and a lot of partnerships with industries who are potential end users need to be forged.”