Hemp harvest setback

Liz Bell

ORGANISERS of a trial sowing of hemp in Wellington Shire have vowed to try again after the project was sidelined by unsuitable soil.

In November last year an east Gippsland organic garlic grower and a Maffra farmer teamed up to grow and harvest hemp as part of a plan to build a potentially lucrative, local hemp industry.

Maffra farmer Ryan Vardy had answered an appeal by W-Tree garlic farmer Fred Koch to participate in the trial hemp project, and agreed to plant 4.5 hectares of land with seed supplied by Mr Koch.

It was a business partnership made in heaven, with Mr Koch supplying the knowledge, financing and production elements, while Mr Vardy’s fertile irrigation land provided the perfect growing environment.

But Mr Koch said only 20 per cent of the plants had flourished, while the majority had failed to battle the clay soils and compete with the millet weeds.

Mr Koch believed laser levelling of the plot too close to planting had mixed the clay soil with the healthy top soil, and created an unsuitable growing medium.

The seasoned farmer, who for about 40 years has grown organic garlic at his farm near Buchan, has spent years researching the health benefits of hemp products, and the local and international markets.

Hemp is well known as a high protein plant food (22 per cent protein) and oil (33 per cent protein).

While it has been legal to grow industrial hemp with very low levels of THC in Australia since November last year, the industry is still in its infancy, and most of the product bought in Australia is imported from China and Canada.

Hemp has been grown and used as a food product in Europe and North America for decades, with the international market for hemp foods estimated at more than $1 billion annually.

Neither Mr Koch or Mr Vardy see the crop’s failure as a major set back, as some of the hemp did manage to grow to about shoulder height, and about one tonne is almost ready for harvesting.

“It’s been an important lesson and the farmer and I are still very keen to do it again next year,” Mr Koch said.

“We believe it’s worth doing again next year.”

Mr Koch said all farmers had experienced crop failure, and it was important to learn from mistakes.

He is calling on Macalister Irrigation District farmers to jump on board the project for next November’s planting.

“There is definitely a potential for hemp as human consumption or fibre to be a lucrative crop for farmers,” he said.

“We just need farmers to get on board.”

Farmers who do get involved will be provided with seed and advice and help with planting, harvesting and drying, courtesy of a combined harvester and an agricultural dryer.

Mr Koch and his business partners say they have a strong ethical approach to the business plan, and are willing to buy the hemp from farmers who commit to the trial without tying them to low-priced contracts.

For information, phone Mr Koch on 5155 0372 or email nerolih3@hotmail.com.