Opportunity beckons for industrial hemp

By Leah Tindale
February 21 2022 - 10:00pm
Harvey Hemp co-founders Mark Power (left) and Greg LeGuier.

CONVERSATIONS about industrial hemp are becoming more frequent as was evident by the turnout at HEMPGRO's recent field day.

About 30 farmers, investors and curious locals attended the event at new farm, Harvey Hemp,

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A secondary field day was also held at Denmark with a similar response.

HEMPGRO executive officer Gail Stubber officially opened the Harvey event, sharing the history of industrial hemp and the role of the co-op.

"In 2018 there was a need to bring in good hemp seed, the seed at that time was not certified and it would grow all sorts of different looking plants, there was no uniformity," Ms Stubber said.

"We decided to go outside of Australia and find certified seed as a co-op, so about seven or eight of us got together and decided on the French seed because of the uniformity."

Currently industrial hemp can only be grown under a licence provided by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development.

The industrial hemp seed must have less than 0.5 per cent Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive element in hemp.

"We grow seed that is below 0.3pc THC so it's very, very low," Ms Stubber said.

"By the time it gets to the seed that you're eating there is almost zero THC on that seed, and if it is anywhere it's on the outside which can be washed and it's gone.

"So it's a food and fibre crop, it doesn't come under medical marijuana, so you can have open fields."

Currently running trials on various seeds, the co-op is working on getting Australian certified seed, but in the meantime it is also investigating a seed variety that is grown in the drylands of southern Italy.

"We think if the seed can grow in dryland southern Italy then it's going to grow in the drylands here," she said.

"Seed is the one thing that has to be good for us to grow, getting good seed that can't go hot - it comes in at less than 0.2pc and all our farmers have only ever grown it at less than 0.1pc.

"If it goes over 0.5pc in Western Australia then you can't sell that seed or use that seed again."

Co-founder of Harvey Hemp and host of the field day, Greg LeGuier, has been involved in the hemp sector since 2017 and during the first lockdown in 2020 took the opportunity to move from being a hemp investor and advisor to hemp farmer.

"We hadn't grown a crop ourselves, we hadn't gotten out there and gotten our hands dirty, so this is about going out and showing that we could do it," Mr LeGuier said.

Along with co-founder Mark Power, he is building the first processing plant in WA and demonstrated the process at the field day.

"There is a huge gap in the market with no processing, so we've brought in this processing to be the first, scaling only as quick as the market grows," he said.

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"There is a real opportunity to network with farmers, so they can grow it, then we'll take it at farmgate, process it for them and find a customer for them."

Out in the fields, HEMPGRO's executive officer Gail Stubber shares information about the variety grown at Harvey Hemp.

At Harvey Hemp the industrial hemp crop is irrigated on clay soils with a loam top and Mr LeGuier said over their eight hectares the current crop used 14 to 15 megalitres of water.

Despite their access to water, he believes that industrial hemp can still be grown in drylands and is an advocate for it being a suitable summer crop, although convincing farmers may prove a challenge.

"The great thing about hemp is that you can grow it on an irrigated basis or you can grow it on a dryland basis," Mr LeGuier said.

"Down in the lower south west where you still have rainfall you could grow in the same cycle and timing as what we are growing here - November through to the end of February and then harvest.

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"On drylands the varietal is very important, we've used a seed that matches up with irrigation."

Mr LeGuier said the co-op had varieties that were better suited to more arid climates.

During the field day temperatures reached 40 degrees and even after the irrigation had been off for the week, the hemp plant was standing upright, green and doing surprisingly well.

"It's a very hardy and resilient plant," he said.

"These next few weeks we're going to experience some high temperatures.

"We expect the leaves, all the foliage to drop and then we'll be left with the flower head and that's when we harvest."

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Mr LeGuier said hemp doesn't like wet feet, but had a strong and impressive root system, burrowing down until they find water.

Industrial hemp is also an extremely nitrogen hungry plant, absorbing as much nitrogen as you throw on it, according to agronomist Ken Bailey.

"Hemp, as a plant, is a big feeder, you can put a lot of stuff on it and you're not going to kill it, it's like rhubarb, you can just throw stuff at it and it's going to keep responding," Mr Bailey said.

"This plant has enormous potential, there are some farmers who grew some hemp down in Esperance, they seeded it in April and it went half the tonne to the hectare.

"I've always considered this crop to be a warm season broadleaf, but in WA if we get the right variety we may have the potential to seed this stuff as a normal winter crop, that opens up a whole lot of doors that we haven't really looked at yet."

Mr Bailey also discussed the large root system of hemp plants, making it an excellent option if you're considering soil carbon sequestration.

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"We are still on a learning curve with agronomy but there's potential there," he said.

"With a market for the seed and the oil, the co-op is still working on outlets for the stem of the plant, with some projects already including hemp 'bricks' for construction."

Ms Stubber sees the value in both the seed farming and the ongoing production.

"The value-add is the thing that we know is going to be the driving force, it's going to drive farmers to grow hemp and it's going to help build everybody's business," she said.

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