In an isolated paddock in Victoria’s north west, a hefty hemp haul is being harvested.
- Australia grows about 2,500 hectares of industrial hemp, with Tasmania producing two-thirds
- It was only in November 2017 that Australia allowed the sale of low-THC hemp seed for human consumption
- Invasive pests, dust storms, dry soil, and sand drift have kept scientists focused through the growing process
A paddock of tall, thin plants sways gently at Murray River Organics’ (MRO) 32-hectare trial site in Nangiloc, the flowering heads ready for collection.
It is the first time this kind of edible hemp has been grown in the region and local MRO agronomist Richard Neagle said he expected it to be the biggest organic crop in the country, despite tough weather conditions.
“We had a very challenging growing season — a really hot, dry and windy spring,” he said.
“We think we might have a little more than we initially thought. The crop itself varies, as you can see, from around about 300–400mm in height, right through to probably 2.4 metres in height.”
Invasive pests, dust storms, dry soil, and sand drift have kept the scientists focused while tending to the hemp, which originates from a place with vastly different growing conditions in northern China.
“We’ve had organically certified cow manure spread on here as it was the only form of fertiliser, for the most part, and we had to top-dress it with a little bit of organic liquid and potassium,” Mr Nagle said.
“We had some heliothis, some army grubs, and we also had some myriads. Being organic, we’re very limited. Basically there’s not much we can spray on those crops.
“We were fortunate that we had a lot of birds, a lot of beneficial insects throughout the crop as well.”
Fertiliser and pest control weren’t the only hardships for the agricultural team. Choosing the right machine to harvest the plants was also a challenge.
“There’s no real special harvesters for hemp. You need to have something with big horsepower.
“The fibre is very, very strong, and if you don’t take it easy you can basically jam things up.”
Many food functions
Sunraysia consultant agronomist Talitha Gollan has recently returned from the US Pacific north west where she worked on industrial hemp crops.
“The regions that I was working in the United States were quite similar to here in terms of the temperature ranges that we’re working with,” she said.
“Whilst the crop there was predominantly focused on the development of biomass production of CBD [cannabis] oil, I’ve been able to utilise a lot of that agronomic knowledge to apply to this particular crop here.”
Ms Gollan said the hemp plant had many food functions.
“The seed can be used in cereals and muesli bars,” she said.
“They can also be crushed up for the likes of hemp protein powder, so really good in smoothies.
“You can be really quite creative with it.”
Industry faced with challenges
Despite good harvests and rising demand for hemp products, Australia’s fledgling industry faces challenges on many fronts.
James Vosper, president of the Australian Industrial Hemp Alliance (AIHA), said Australia had a “massive opportunity” in food production as it held “half of the world’s certified organic farmland”.
But Australia’s hemp cultivation and its product and market development were years behind.
It was only in November 2017 that the amended Food Standards Code permitted the sale of low-THC hemp seed for human consumption in Australia.
Since then, farmers have been allowed to grow industrial hemp legally under a licence issued by State Governments.
But Mr Vosper said different regulations to get a licence made it difficult for farmers to start growing industrial hemp.
“Some states have been slower to support the industry and therefore they are behind and are not producing as much,” he said.
Right now, Australia grows about 2,500 hectares of industrial hemp, with Tasmania producing two-thirds.
In South Australia, the industry is expected to be worth about $3 million annually by 2023.
But a lack of confidence among farmers to grow the crop, and the experience of licensed growers in the state, cast a shadow over the forecast.