ALBANY hemp grower David Hiscox believes he has finally found a passion for farming after being involved in the industry when he was raised at Bencubbin.
After working in farming in the north eastern Wheatbelt for 20 years, he moved to Albany to work in the fuel industry, as well as being a truck driver and a contractor, but never lost touch with the farming industry.
Mr Hiscox is one of 60 WA farmers growing industrial hemp, and said it was a whole new ball game.
He is growing 0.6 hectares of hemp on his 4.8ha property just out of Albany.
In the future he would like to grow more of the crop but said sourcing the seed was hard as different seeds matched different climates.
When moving to Albany with wife Ronda 28 years ago he was looking for something he could do on his own.
“Basically I was looking around for something I could grow on this small property because we weren’t doing much with it,” Mr Hiscox said.
“We thought about going into veggies and a few other things but then Ronda started researching and found that you could grow industrial hemp legally.”
Interested in the idea, they started researching the benefits of growing industrial hemp in WA.
One of the benefits was the short growing season of 120 days and because there was no weed competition, there was no need for knockdown sprays.
Anyone who wants to grow hemp has to apply for a licence through the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) and are only approved with strict conditions, including making everyone sign a visitors book.
The crop is audited regularly to make sure the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels do not exceed the industry standard, which was below one per cent.
“I was farming for 35 years and this is the only plant I have been really excited about and its potential,” Mr Hiscox said.
He planted his first crop just after Christmas which he considered late, on the back of normal sowing in late October and November.
A hemp seed, which is similar to a canola seed but twice the size, is easily sown with an ordinary combine or airseeder.
“I sow mine at 30 kilograms per hectare,” he said.
“But if you are planting it for stalk use then you would seed it at 40kg/ha because the thicker the stalk, the harder they are to cut.”
Mr Hiscox said within three days of planting the seed, the plant had germinated.
The plant will grow up to 10 centimetres every week if it’s in the right conditions and made for high stalk production, with Mr Hiscox’s crop growing just over a centimetre a day.
He said the next challenge would be at harvest time.
“I have to harvest the seed this year and my crop is about 2.5 to 3 metres tall in patches, so I am looking for a harvester which will do that, which is hard to find,” he said.
“People say you only have a small area and you could do it by hand, but to me growing up on a farm, that just doesn’t do it.
“There has to be a machine out there.”
Mr Hiscox found himself talking to the local Case IH dealer in Albany who offered to send one of their machines out when the crop is ready and see if they can harvest it.
“One day in the next two weeks I will end up with a big harvester with a nine metre or 12m front on it to take off 0.6ha,” he said.
This year Mr Hiscox plans to only harvest the seed because the variety he sourced from China is a duel-purpose plant, but the stem has gone past its prime manufacturing point.
“If I had cut it a month ago I could have used the stem but the heads don’t ripen until about a month later than the stalks,” he said.
“It’s very difficult – the longer it goes off the tougher it becomes and the stalk is harder to manufacture.”
During the growing season the male plant will die after the female plant is pollinated and it will decompose into the ground, making its own mulch for the female plant.
Mr Hiscox said the plant was a soil improver – once it decomposes it will take residual poisons out of the soils and reduce carbon levels.
“It’s a peculiar plant because it has to grow over the summer,” he said.
“You sow it in spring, because it’s daylight sensitive and it will start to ripen (in autumn) when the days start to get shorter.”
Albany has the perfect climate for hemp production, as it requires a lot of moisture over the summer.
Mr Hiscox said the South Coast gets very wet in the winter and rain is stored in the water table over summer.
The tap root of a hemp plant means it can follow the water table down as it grows over summer.
The hemp plant is an extraordinary plant with 2500 known uses from the stem to the grain.
“The stalk has many uses with the centre pithy part used for hemp-crete, insulation, horse bedding and kitty litter,” he said.
“The fibrous outside can be used to make clothes, rope, canvas and even as a plastic substitute in the car industry.”
The oil from the seed can be used for petro-chemicals, which make fuel and food products.
Other uses include food, cosmetics, clothing, industrial products, chip board, insulations and plastics.
Mr Hiscox said the seed was valuable, with prices between $3 to $7 per kilogram, or $3000 to $7000 a tonne.
The stalk is also valuable with certain varieties of seed tailored to grow up to 4m tall and produce limited seed heads
“From the stalk you can get anywhere up to 15 tonnes per hectare, with the stalk selling between $500 to $700/t,” he said.
A few weeks ago, Mr Hiscox and other members of the industry formed a hemp co-operative.
The group has been liasing with a French co-operative, Hemp IT, that has been presenting seminars with hemp growers in WA.
“Hemp IT are manufacturing special seed varieties for our industry here in WA and we are going to source our seed from that company,” he said.
“They have come to WA with a research motive to find out how they can best supply a dual-purpose plant which will produce seed and stalk and one that is geographically-designed to thrive in our latitude.”
Mr Hiscox said there was a limited market for hemp stalk with manufacturing plants being based over east or overseas.
“The stalk market is fairly limited at this point, simply because we don’t have value-adding machinery and this is where our co-operative is heading, organising a processing plant in WA for the stalk,” he said.
“The stalk needs to be machined into two different products initially so it can be further manufactured into either industrial products or clothing.”
At this stage Mr Hiscox and the co-operative is looking at a bigger market for the seed, simply because it’s easier to process and to extract oil and make flours, with the domestic seed market having no problems at all.
“Until the industries here start to take hemp on board, our market is basically overseas for the stalk products,” he said.