As New Zealand’s arable sector continues to refine its skills and expand the range of high value crops capable of being grown here, hemp is poised to tick another box in the sector’s crop portfolio.
Typically “hemp” and “marijuana” fall into the same crop category for many people, but the differences between the two do much to explain why one can be grown openly, whilst the other is usually found skulking in a back paddock or the bush.
Hemp is a plant that contains extremely low levels of the drug compound THC typically found in marijuana, making it safe for human consumption, without the drug effects of recreational marijuana.
As a crop there are an estimated 25,000 products derived from industrial hemp, covering a wide range of categories including automotive, furniture, paper, food and personal care.
“There are an estimated 25,000 products derived from industrial hemp including automotive, furniture, paper, food and personal care.“
From a processing perspective hemp is a relatively flexible crop, capable of being grown for fibre, for seed or as a dual purpose crop and has proven to be well suited to being grown on a large scale commercial basis.
Globally the hemp seed market alone is estimated to have a value of about US$1 billion, and is experiencing double digit growth rates as more consumers learn about the highly nutritious nature of hemp oil, with elevated levels of the valuable Omega fatty acids. Hemp seed oil also contains gamma linolenic acid, a proven anti-inflammatory.
Last year the Australia and New Zealand ministerial forum on food regulation approved a recommendation by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand to allow the sale of low THC hemp seed for food products for human consumption. Until now only hemp seed oil could be sold legally.
The government is also amending the Food Regulations and Misuse of Drugs (industrial hemp) regulations to enable this to happen, with consultation on hemp seed foods closing off in mid-June.
Prospects the changes will go through has the industry optimistic about the crop’s prospects here, and particularly in Canterbury.
Hemp for fibre and food grade oil has been able to be grown in New Zealand for the past 17 years.
But the prospect of being able to grow seed for human consumption opens up the opportunity for sourcing high value hemp seed meal for food use. At present the hemp seed meal is only allowed to be used for stock feed.
Thomas Chin, general manager for the New Zealand Grain and Seed Trade Association says hemp crops would suit most of the parts of New Zealand already capable of growing quality arable crops, including northern Wairarapa, Hawke’s Bay, Manawatu and Canterbury.
“But the infrastructure for processing the crop is largely in Canterbury at this stage.”
He sees a legislative change offering tremendous opportunity to grow a crop capable of generating $4,500-$5,000 a hectare, similar to a quality wheat crop.
Midlands Seed Director Andrew Davidson is holding his breath in hope the legislation gets over the line in time for planting this spring, but appreciates timing could prove tight.
He is however optimistic about the crop’s future, even if it is delayed by a season.
“We are oversubscribed in terms of people wanting to grow it on contract for us. Over time as we get more crop in the ground we will have a better idea of where it grows well, and where it does not.”
He says hulled hemp seed is currently a hot food item among consumers seeking out high quality, high protein plant based products, and having the ability to sell hemp seed food products as well as hemp seed oil makes the crop significantly more economic from a processing perspective.
“Hulled hemp seed is currently a hot food item among consumers seeking out high quality, high protein plant based products, making the crop significantly more economic from a processing perspective.”
Midlands currently offers culinary hemp oil products under its “New Hemisphere” brand.
But Andrew cautions while consumer demand is strong, hemp can be a challenging crop to grow.
“It is sensitive to soil temperature, moisture levels and competition from weeds, and requires close attention at sowing to get a good start on the crop.
“Also drying of grain is required at harvest, and access to suitable facilities is paramount if food grade quality is to be achieved”.
Ben Turner, Bayleys Canterbury agent deals in a wide variety of farms capturing most land uses.
He welcomes the opportunities hemp crops bring to widening crop options even further in the region’s diverse cropping options.
“We are seeing an ever increasing number of irrigation schemes opening up throughout Canterbury, and with that the opportunity to support crops like this that may not have even been possible a few years ago.”