IT’S ONE of the world’s oldest crops, cultivated by humans from ancient times for use as food and fibre.
But it’s now hoped hemp production will become a major industry on the fertile Liverpool Plains.
Despite its long history, industrial hemp has struggled to gain acceptance as a mainstream crop in Australia thanks to its association with its cousin species, marijuana.
Industrial hemp producer Eco-Fibre Industries’ managing director Phil Warner said while the plants were indistinguishable to the eye there were vast differences between the two species.
Levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the active ingredient that gives marijuana its potency – were less than one per cent in industrial hemp, meaning anybody who attempted to smoke the crop was more likely to be left with a headache than a high.
“There’s a lot of misinformation about industrial hemp,” Mr Warner said.
Increased hemp production could have the unintended benefit of forcing marijuana production out of growing regions.
“The last thing (illegal marijuana growers) want is a healthy hemp industry,” Mr Warner said.
Accidental cross-pollination be-tween the two species would have the affect of lowering the potency of the illegal crops,” he said.
NSW granted the first licences for industrial hemp – for fibre use only – in 2008.
It remains illegal to use the crop for food production.
Mr Warner said he hoped the law-makers would wake up to the potential of industrial hemp production, including its use in food production.
“... in Europe and Canada, there are no problems at all with growing this crop,” he said.
“You can be driving through the countryside in Denmark, France, Germany, and see great crops by the road.
“It’s just a crop, like any other.”
Hemp seed fetches about $2.25 per kilogram for grain (average yield 0.8 to 1.3 tonnes a hectare) while fibre seed will return $4/kg (average yield 0.5t/ha).
Prices for hemp fibre stood at about $300/t delivered to a hemp mill in module form (average yield 8t/ha to 12t/ha).
Mr Warner said hemp had great benefits as a rotation crop between wheat, barley, oats, sunflowers and lucerne.
“Hemp has the capacity to be a good break crop and add nutrients to the soil,” he said.
He said 60-80pc of the nutrient uptake of the plant was deposited back into the soil.
“The majority of nutrients are left in the soil because it’s only the stalk you want and you’re going to be left with highly productive soil.”
As well as boosting soil productivity, growing industrial hemp can help to reduce weed burden without the use of herbicides.
The crop grows so quickly it will choke out any unwanted plant species.
“Weeds simply don’t get a chance to germinate,” Mr Warner said.
“They can’t get enough light.”
The plant also has the ability to tolerate tough seasons, making it a good risk management tool for growers.
“If you get halfway through the growing cycle and it dries up, you’re still going to get half a crop,” Mr Warner said.