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06/09/2007 00:00:00

UK: Hemp crops to become common, despite cannabis junkie confusion

New Highs

Mike Duckett knows a lot about hemp – Pliny, for example, he says,
wrote the first agronomy guide in AD100.

But even he admits the crop, which is pretty much the same as cannabis
but without the hallucinogenic effects, has had a bit of a chequered
history with UK farmers.

In its hey day, growing hemp was even made compulsory by Henry VIII to
provide the rigging and ropes for his navy.

Committed growers

But a decline in traditional products, a 65-year ban on UK production
followed by failed growing schemes, coupled with harvesting and handling
problems, has seen modern production dwindle to a small number of
committed growers.

All that, however, could be about to change as the use of hemp-based
products bounces back, says Mr Duckett.

Health food devotees will probably already have heard of hemp oil’s
beneficial properties.

Industrial opportunities

Its mix of Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids is supposed to be closest to
what occurs naturally in the body – but the real potential lies in its
industrial uses, reckons Mr Duckett.

The hemp plant has two constituents, the outer fibre and the woody core
or “shiv”. Both are increasingly in demand following a rise in
environmental awareness, especially worries over global warming.

Hemp fibre is being used in the automotive sector for the manufacture of
recyclable door panels and other parts, while Hemcrete, a breathable mix
of shiv and lime, is used as an energy-efficient building material that
can be sprayed onto a wooden frame.

“One hectare of hemp is enough for one house,” according to Mr Duckett,
who says the material is comparable in cost to concrete, but far more
environmentally friendly.

Everybody is aiming to be carbon neutral these days and Hemcrete fits
the bill because all the carbon dioxide used by the hemp plant during
photosynthesis is locked away, he says.

“You could even say it is carbon negative because it absorbs even more
carbon dioxide during its lifetime,” says Mr Duckett.

Carbon targets

“If you built every new house in the UK from Hemcrete, the government
could meet its target for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.”

As managing director of Essex-based Hemcore, the UK’s primary industrial
hemp processor, Mr Duckett obviously has a vested interest in promoting
the crop, but his arguments sound convincing and the company is
investing heavily to take advantage of the new opportunities.

Hemcore’s existing factory processes 4500t of hemp straw a year, but a
new £3.6m factory, which will be able to handle 50,000t, is set to open
in Halesworth, Suffolk, next summer.

Champion hemp

All this sounds excellent news, but if demand takes off as expected far
more farmers will be needed to champion hemp.

Hemcore’s rough prediction is that by 2020 it will need to have 6
factories each processing 50,000t. Production on this scale would
require about 50,000ha (124,000 acres) of crop.

Next year, the firm has a more modest target of about 3250ha (8000
acres), but this is still far higher than the 600 or so hectares (1500
acres) grown for the firm this year.

Tempting crop

With wheat prices rocketing, what is there to tempt farmers to take a
chance with such an unusual crop?

Actually, quite a lot, claims Mr Duckett. “We don’t expect farmers to
grow it instead of wheat, but we do believe it makes an excellent break

He says an estimated 2008 gross margin of £508/ha (£205/acre) before
haulage compares well with other break crops, and once the hemp is
established it requires no chemicals and is ready to harvest in about
four months.

Suppresses weeds

Anecdotal evidence also suggests following crops do better than after rape.

Drilling into a moist seedbed – from April to early June - and
protecting the seedlings from pigeons are the critical factors in hemp
establishment, after that it’s just a case of watching it grow – up to
four cm a day. Nitrogen requirement is about 100kg/ha (40kg/acre)

Because the plant is so vigorous it suppresses weeds and is excellent at
reducing blackgrass pressure on susceptible farms, especially if it is
grown for two years in a row, says Mr Duckett.

Easier harvesting

The use of foragers and square balers has made harvesting easier and
improvements in the manufacturing process mean the crop no longer needs
to be left to ret (when the fibres start to separate) in the field
before baling.

Hemcore is principally looking for farmers close to its East Anglian
base, but says it will accept crops from all over the country.

Mr Duckett leaves me with one final fact. During the Napoleonic wars
hemp was in such demand farmers were paid the equivalent of £8000/acre.

He can’t offer that today, but hemp looks like an option that’s at least
worth considering.started s

Author: Farmers Weekly via UKCIA

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