WHEN you think about edible hemp, the image of a farm is not necessarily the first thing that springs to mind.
But over the last few months, harvesters rolled out across the state – ready to strip and process more than 700 hectares of the crop.
It has been a long road – especially for the team at Australian Primary Hemp (APH), the nation’s largest independently owned edible hemp company.
Started in 2016 by four farmers – James Hood, Charlie and Alexandra Mann, and Skye Patterson – the business partners were looking to diversify into something innovative but environmental.
After dismissing crickets, they settled on hemp – and the government decision to allow the sale of low level tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) foods as of November last year could not have come at a better time.
As a business, Australian Primary Hemp has a three pronged approach to farming.
Along with their own hemp crop grown in the Western District, the company also has a major processing plant in Geelong, contracts with farmers across the state – with guaranteed buy-backs – and a wholesale and retail product line.
Sold in boutique health food shops and online, APH produces a cold pressed oil, protein powder and, as of this month, edible seeds.
APH harvested their first crop of edible hemp in April – with the product due to be available to the public in May.
It is the first time the company have offered seeds in their raw form, and is indicative of the market confidence felt by the business.
“We don’t see this as a novelty super food – we believe it will continue to be a productive industry within the domestic and international markets,” marketing and communications coordinator at Australian Primary Hemp, Georgina Beasley, said.
“We can’t keep up with demand – we are always looking for more farmers who want to be involved.”
The Australian hemp industry has always been relatively small – in 2012, just 185.5 hectares were sown to industrial varieties.
But with the recent legalisation of edible hemp, APH is confident the market will increase – and accordingly plan to triple their harvest in 2018/2019.
“This is going to be a big thing in Australia – hemp has many health benefits; it’s known as one of the most nutritious seeds in the world, is an excellent source of essential fatty acids including Omega 3, 6 and GLA, and is a more digestible protein than meat or any other high protein food,” Georgina said.
“A comparable market is hemp in Canada, where food-grade varieties have been legally grown for years; that’s the kind of future we hope to replicate here in Australia.”
The edible hemp market is worth $742 million in the US and Canada.
Domestically, hemp has often been marred by association for its close ties with cannabis, a different variety of the same species.
Traditionally in Australia, hemp has been grown for fibre, oils and ointments – while cannabis is grown for its potent flowers and leaves.
Tetrahydrocannabinolis (THC) is the chemical responsible for cannabis’s psychoactive properties – with strong strains containing up to 30 per cent THC.
In contrast, the newly legalised farm grade edible hemp contains just .35 per cent – with some strains having even lower numbers.
“The aim is for us to make hemp a viable and productive summer crop option,” Georgina said.
“At the moment, a lot of work is being done with research and development – but it certainly looks promising.”
Mitch Costin is the farm manager at Australian Primary Hemp.
It is his job to help farmers get the most from their new crop.
“There is a lot of learning still to be done on how to get the best returns,” he said.
“The industry is pretty new, but we are expecting yields to increase each season as we learn.”
Hemp is a fast-growing, herbaceous, annual plant that is believed to have originated in the Himalayas.
Depending on the variety, it is currently sown at a rate of 30-45kg/ha, to a depth of 10 to 30mm.
Last year, dryland growers were getting 400kg/ha, with irrigated crops making a tonne/ha.
In Canada, the yield rates are double.
“We are trying to get as many crops into as many different areas as we can, to see where it grows the best,” Mitch said.
“The big advantage of getting in now is that farmers will be at the forefront of a new industry, and by the time others get onto it they will be leaps ahead.”
Hemp is pest resistant, and requires less water than many other food crops – preferring an initial soaking and then a dry period.
Farmers are able to lock in a per kilo price before sowing – the 2018-2019 industry is expecting $4/kg – and are guaranteed a buy-back if the seeds are purchased from APH.
The other advantage of planting an edible hemp crop – unlike industrial strains – is the ability for farmers to use traditional harvesting equipment.
“Right now, we are still at the beginning,” Georgina said.
“But we are confident we are going to be here for a long time to come – and would like, one day, for hemp to be as widely recognised as a health food as chia seeds or tumeric.”
For more information on how to grow hemp, contract APH through their website on www.ausprimaryhemp.com.au.