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The future of farming? How sowing hemp seeds can help our economy and our environment

There is growing concern about the future of our agricultural sector – particularly livestock farming – which some believe has reached its social, environmental and economic limits. And while our meat and dairy industries have long formed the bones of New Zealand’s economic and cultural anatomy, the future looks grim for both our next generation of farmers and for the land itself. But while an overarching solution is difficult to see, sustainable alternatives exist, and plant based possibilities are beginning to see renewed interest. One of those possibilites is hemp, and according to Dave Jordan, it could eventually account for 60 percent of ‘a new plant based economy’. We sit down with Jordan to glean further insight into the industry and hear about his 10-year wrestle to promote hemp in New Zealand.

“I have come to the conclusion it is our companion plant,” Jordan declares over the phone before he rattles off the endless possibilities of hemp: it can be used to make food, bridges, roads, clothing and medicine, amongst various other products, it has the potential to replace black oil and carbon fibre, and unlike incumbent materials such as concrete and plastics, the plant is carbon sequential and reduces greenhouse gases.

Further, the New Zealand Herald has declared hemp as a high value, ‘low input’ crop, which doesn't need fertiliser or irrigation, and could allegedly generate between $10 million and $20 million in export revenue. It has also been touted by The Guardian as a true alternative to the ‘white gold’ that is cotton, as it is a more durable product, and has a plethora of environmental benefits.

But while hemp is an exciting prospect, it has been shadowed by its dark past. Most notably, its battle with identity and legislative issues. As a cousin to cannabis, hemp has been dealt the hash card, despite the plant holding less than 0.3 percent of THC – the primary psychoactive ingredient that gets people high. However, after years of being lumped in the naughty drugs category, policy moved in 2008 under the Helen Clark government and commercial cultivation of hemp was enabled.

Three years after the legislation, Dave Jordan set up Hemp Farm New Zealand in 2011 – the largest hemp enterprise in the country – and has since fought to harness the plant’s potential. And while differentiating between hemp and marijuana is crucial, the two previously neglected cousins are following a similar trajectory regarding regulation in the government arena. This has led to a bunch of new businesses like Hikurangi Enterprises in Ruatoria and Helius Therapeutics lining up to capitalise on a market that does not yet exist here, but, judging by what's happening in parliament and overseas, soon might. 

 “When I started 10 years ago, very few people knew anything about hemp. Since then my wife Anne and I have been working diligently to enable industries with hemp. This is in the harvesting, processing and manufacturing process – right through to the education, research and development stages too,” Jordan says.

Ten years on, Hemp Farm has taken on investors and expanded its team to ten, a fairly humble size, considering the company has managed to yield over 500 hectares of hemp this year and worked alongside growers across five regions of New Zealand: Canterbury, Wairarapa, Hawkes Bay, Waikato, and Manawatu.

“We have only just got to the stage where we can handle enough of the product. Out of the 500 hectares, about 400 is fibre crops, and the other 100 is food crops. Potentially we have got 400 tonne of fibre and we need to find a place for that,” Jordan says.

“We couldn’t sell that immediately but over a period of a year we can start placing that with manufacturing groups, some of that can be sold outside of our country, some can be sold for insulation, some can be used for textiles and carpets, alongside construction, roadways, and in the animal sector.”

Further, The Hemp Farm has designed its own decorticator system – the first of its kind – which processes hemp stalks fresh from the field.

However, despite the new machinery, infrastructure is still the biggest challenge for the hemp industry. And while New Zealand has fertile grounds to grow hemp, it is still unable to deal with mass scale harvesting, storing and processing of hemp.

“We have noticed it is not just a local problem, but a global issue. Growth in the industry has been limited, and the technology has never been picked up by agricultural engineers because hemp was in jail and there wasn’t a need.” 

However, with more education on the benefits of hemp and more knowledge of its capabilities, The Hemp Farm is welcoming increased investment interest.

Jordan says, “So far we have invested $4 million over that ten-year period, a lot of that money has gone into education and lessons to develop what will work in the future. We still need to put several million dollars together to finalise a facility in both the North and South Islands to process the stalk.”

It must be said that Hemp isn’t the only industry subject to threadbare local infrastructure. And across industries, much of our production and manufacturing has moved off-shore – so what is stopping The Hemp Farm from supplying the fibre locally and doing the rest overseas?

“To some degree we would like to work with countries overseas who manufacture hemp, for example the textile industry. It would be great to generate really quality fibre in our crops – and then send it to Bangladesh or Taiwan, or even China – who could use our fibre to produce fabric.”

Another significant challenge for the industry is taking hemp to the human food chain. But yet again, the debate is fraught with polarity, because while hemp has been accepted by the food standards authority – and is allegedly filled with nutrients such as omega fatty acids and healthy proteins – legislators remain circumspect about its relationship with marijuana.

Currently, incumbent regulation sees consumable hemp products constrained to hemp oil and all food derived from hemp seeds banned. However, there is currently a pending bill to regulate hemp-based food, which isn’t expected to pass until late 2018.

The other side of it is supply, and Jordan is quick to point out that with increased interest from both consumers and producers, stockpiling will be an important part of the process. 

“We know the plant based economy is growing exponentially, and we need to be able to balance out supply and demand – so that if we have a bad season, or something breaks down, we can account for it.”

Asked what advice he would give to fellow growers across the country, Jordan says, “There is no point anybody growing hemp if they do not have the infrastructure in place, the birds will take your seed, and you won’t know how to harvest it. Once we get the infrastructure set-up in this country then we can actively grow, harvest, process, and supply manufacturing groups.”

So, while hemp looks to provide our agricultural industry with a strong alternative to how we occupy our land, there is still much progress to be made before hemp finds freedom. For Jordan, it looks to be a continued battle to sow his seed into the New Zealand marketplace.

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