5 January 2001

Hemp margin outstrips other spring breaks

By Charles Abel

COULD the fibre crop hemp be a saviour for weather-hit growers in south-east England? With a potential gross margin of £480/ha and simple crop husbandry backer Hemcore believes it could be.

Although the arable aid payment for hemp has dropped to that of linseed, Hemcore says it will return the processing aid of £30/t to growers, lifting crops value to £90/t.

That means a typical 6.2t/ha crop produces a gross income of £835 after area aid. After variable costs of £403/ha, growers can expect a gross margin of £432/ha. That outstrips other spring breaks, even allowing for improved pulse and oilseed prices following the EU-wide meat and bonemeal ban, according to Hemcore figures.

"The new scheme will reward high yielding crops," says Hemcore director John Hobson. "We believe this is the best way forward and we will do everything we can to encourage high yields. The current record for farm crops is 4t/acre."

Greater certainty adds to the crops attraction. "We now know where we stand for the next five years."

Hemcore has secured deals to supply hemp for car panels for BMW and Mercedes. But to meet those obligations it must double the crop area from 2227ha (5500 acres) in 2000 to almost 5000ha (12,000 acres) in 2001.

Previously one of the crops greatest weaknesses was the lack of a suitable harvesting technique, but that has been overcome with a contractors adapted forage maize harvester.

Once cut, the crop must be left down for two to four weeks to allow for retting – a wetting and drying process that breaks down the bond between the outer fibre and the woody plant core.

Harvest 2000 was particularly wet, so some crops became too rotten, Mr Hobson admits. However, EU rule changes mean crops can now be cut from Aug 1, which should ensure better retting conditions and earlier field clearance.

A safe yield estimate is 5t/ha (2t/acre), says Mr Hobson, with good establishment the key to success. Like all small seeded crops hemp requires a well-prepared and friable seedbed. "The lighter and free draining soils give a rapid establishment. Given this start it literally grows like a weed."

If hemp struggles early on, weeds and pests can overtake it. However, if it takes off, weeds are smothered by the fast-growing crop and pesticides are not needed. That is why many organic growers use it during conversion. Its deep roots also benefit soil structure.

Fertiliser requirement is about 150kg N/ha (120 units N/acre), although in some situations sewage bio-solids can be used.

At typical seeding rates, seed cost is £143/ha. Supplies are sufficient for the planned area, says Mr Hobson. &#42

This new harvesting technique could make hemp more attractive.

Gross margin comparison


Hemp Linseed Peas S Beans S Rape

Area aid 277 277 252 252 257

Yield (t/ha) 6.2 1.9 3.7 3.7 1.9

Crop value (£/t) 90 110 80 85 130

Return 835 479 548 566 504

Var costs 403 158 183 148 170

GM 432 321 365 418 334

NB Hemp var costs include seed £143/ha, fert £49/ha, cutting £62/ha, baling £75/ha and haulage £74/ha. Home Office licence fee is £87/grower for 2001.

Based on Hemcore data.