Hemp has had a mixed press over recent years, but changes to the harvesting and processing of the crop could see it increase in popularity.

The area of contracted hemp is predicted to jump from 2000 to 5000 acres in 2008 and hit 20,000 acres by 2011. At least that is what Hemcore director, and Essex farmer, Dan Squier reckons.

“We believe the markets are there, the production capacity is there, and we’re soon to have the new factory at Halesworth in Suffolk, which will have a 7t/hr capacity, compared with 1-1.5t/hr at the old Maldon site.”

What’s more, the new £3.6m plant – due to open in spring 2008 – will be able to process unretted hemp, which means that the crop can be baled and cleared about 10-14 days after harvest, almost halving the amount of time fields are “tied up”. It also reduces the risk of bad weather damaging the swath and making baling difficult. “We expect to have fields cleared in early September,” Mr Squier says.

The harvesting process itself will also change this season, with all crops cut using a specialised tractor-mounted mower, instead of a forage harvester. “We reckon we were losing up to 2t/ha on the ground, as the forage harvester was smashing the hemp up too much. The new ‘multi-cut’ mower outfit allows us to rake up the crop much cleaner than before.”

Hemp2

Bales should be stored under cover straight away and factory intake is on a “just in time” basis. For 2008/09 prices start at £120/t for September delivery, increasing to £130/t in October and an extra £1.50/t a month onwards to compensate for storage costs. For those with insufficient barn space, Hemcore plans to provide storage for 3000-4000 bales adjacent to the new factory.

But while the harvesting and processing procedures may have improved, haulage is likely to remain a limiting factor for growers outside the immediate vicinity of the factory. Charges range from £4/t (£30/ha) within a 10-mile radius, to £15/t (£112/ha) within 100-miles. Growers wanted for 2008. Call 01279 504 466

Blackgrass control is extra benefit

Just 30 miles by road from Hemcore’s soon-to-close Maldon factory, Robert Bache has been growing a small area (20ha) of hemp in rotation with 1200ha wheat, 263ha oilseed rape, 160ha spring peas, linseed and lucerne for the past 15 years. On balance he is happy with how it has performed, but it has not all been plain sailing.

Drilling does not start until the beginning of May, so there is plenty of time to plough the heavy clay soil and allow it to weather over winter, he says. It also means stale seed-beds can be used to control herbicide-resistant blackgrass. “We plough and heavy press the seed-bed in September and spray it off with glyphosate in December and possibly again in April, just before drilling.

“Hopefully, the hemp will go into a clean seed-bed. Even if weeds do come through, once the crop gets to one true leaf, growth increases very rapidly and smothers everything else.”

Hemp generally stacks up well financially, he says. Straw yields last year averaged 6.4t/ha, giving a gross margin (including contract mowing, but excluding baling and transport) of £404/ha, compared with £250-340/ha for the human consumption peas.

But it was not without its problems, not least the impact of the wet summer on retting and a late harvest. “Hemcore sends a technologist to assess when the hemp’s ready to mow. The final field last year wasn’t harvested until well into September, which was far too late. We virtually followed right behind them picking the bales out of the field before drilling the wheat on 25 October.”

Despite this, and higher transport costs to the new Suffolk plant, Mr Bache thinks he will continue growing hemp next season. “It’s worked well for us. The system now works with square bales, which have helped storage and handling, but I need to be convinced the crop will be removed on time.

“Ultimately, hemp has got industrial end-uses and to my way of thinking, that’s exactly the way farmers ought to be going.”

Hemp pros and cons

Pros

Cons

Sown late April/early May – good weed control opportunity

Pigeon control in first 10-days is crucial

No serious disease threats

Needs moist, warm seed-bed

Little or no herbicide requirement

Haulage costs can be expensive

Attractive gross margin

Harvest can clash with autumn workload

Expanding market for natural plant-based products eg, B&Q insulation, BMW interior car panels, ‘Hemcrete’

Less control over timing of harvest/delivery

New harvesting methods could reduce field wastage

Retting crops has been risky, but new manufacturing processes could overcome this

High potential returns from dual use hemp (seed and fibre), but greater risk.