Hemp is a fascinating and durable plant. It reverses climate change and is used in numerous important products (like gin and vodka!). There are however unique and interesting challenges associated with growing the plant.
Hemp is experiencing a modern rebirth after shaky beginnings.
Hemp was primed to be a billion-dollar crop in the 1930s, but the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 killed the growth of the industry. Then in 1970, President Richard Nixon included hemp in Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act as an F U to anti-Vietnam war protesters.
Today we utilise hemp for a variety of products, such as non-dairy milk, dietary supplements, weight loss products, bioplastics, and CBD extracts to name a few. But how does it get from the ground, into a bottle?
Is it easy to get a licence to grow hemp?
As you may have guessed, industrial hemp can only be grown in Australia under a licence issued by the state government. The reason you must apply for a licence is that hemp is not recognised as a farming commodity due to the presence of trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive component of recreational cannabis.
The growing location must be approved by Agriculture Victoria and the site must be inspected and monitored annually. Cultivation sites must be at least 300 meters from the nearest road and not be visible from any roads in the event the hemp is confused with another crop, encouraging sampling!
The process takes a few months and comes with background checks, credit checks, licensing costs, plus ongoing site inspection and crop analysis costs.
How is hemp grown in Gippsland?
Hemp is grown in every state in Australia as an irrigated crop. In Gippsland, we have great nitrogen content in the soil and the Gippsland water is abundant. For us, the optimal plating period to be early November for a February harvest, with an aim in our first year of 2 ton per hectare.
The 2019/2020 season was particularly difficult for Victorian hemp growers due to the unusually wet summer and January cloud cover due to the bushfires. This did not allow the crop to germinate as quickly in the first 30 days resulting in a suboptimal harvest.
How is hemp harvested?
Hemp seed is notoriously difficult to harvest due to the fragility of the seed. Harvesting for seed would occur when 60–70% of the seed has ripened, usually as soon as there are signs that birds are eating the seed off the stalks.
Harvesting of hemp fibre is less common in Australian than in the US as we do not have access to commercial scale decorticators (large machines which separate the hemp herd or fibres into 3 different grades of thickness). The harvest for fibre usually occurs about 90 days after planting.
How is hemp seed dried?
Another challenge associated with the plant is that the seed is harvested at around 20% moisture content. It must be dried to around 10% ideally within 4 hours of harvest to stop the seed from degrading and becoming useless.
Depending on the volume of seed it can be dried in the sun on racks, using a small mobile seed dryer, or a small silo with cooled compressed air being circulated.
Combine these two challenges with a lack of locally available equipment and significant time investment a lot of farmers will not persevere with the crop beyond the first-year trial.
While our first crop was not as successful as we would have hoped, local hemp seed is our hero ingredient so we will continue to experiment and bring you more unique flavours!