Most of us are familiar with hemp clothing, and some of us have tried eating hemp seeds with yoghurt or blending them into smoothies.

It’s been hailed as a superfood that can even be used to replace plastic, so hemp seems like an obvious crop for Australian farmers to embrace.

But six years after it was first approved as food, the industry in Australia is going backwards.

Hemp advocates say it is a hardy crop that grows quickly in most areas with less water and a low-carbon footprint.

Canada is the world’s leading producer, exporting hemp seeds, oil and protein powder. And China is not far behind. 

But in Australia, production is limited and struggling to keep pace.

Hemp is widely regarded as a superfood and a source of low carbon fibre with huge potential for industrial use, but it hasn’t taken off in Australia as expected.(ABC: Elsie Adamo)

In 2020, 500 licensed growers planted 4,000 hectares but three years later that had fallen to just 2,500 hectares.

Factors in the decline included an oversupply of hemp seeds for human consumption, floods in northern Victoria and western NSW, and a shortage of viable seed for planting. 

Production is also subject to strict licence conditions due to concerns about illegal cannabis crops and that can be onerous for growers.

Agronomist John Muir says there needs to be more investment in processing facilities if the hemp industry is to grow.(ABC Rural: Lara Webster)

Agronomist John Muir is one person who gets excited about his hemp crop. 

“It chases you out of the paddock,” he says..

“I’ve got crops that have grown seven metres in seven months, and that’s phenomenal.”

Mr Muir said hemp could be a major crop in Australia.

“It’s a superfood, high protein, high oilseed, but if it grows tall we can turn the fibre and the the hurd [the tough inner part of the plant] into a chopped-up wood chip,” Mr Muir said.

“It’s replacing wood, replacing plastic. It’s in your BMW. But we need to get investors to turn this plant into products.”

With the potential for hemp to become a major crop in Australia, some schools are now introducing classes on hemp cultivation as part of their agricultural studies curriculum.

For students from Bordertown High School, in South Australia, an excursion to an industrial scale hemp plantation was their first introduction to the crop.  

Like most Australians, Bordertown High School students Maddy Robinson and Shayda Tirkkonen had never seen an industrial hemp crop before.(ABC: Elsie Adamo)

Grower issues warning

Hemp seed was approved for human consumption in Australia six years ago and the varieties grown for that use don’t have any of the psychoactive compound THC found in marijuana.

They can be eaten raw and are used to make milk, oil, cheese substitutes, or protein powder.

A West Australian company has also invested in the development of  bricks and panels for the construction industry.

But a lack of processing facilities is hindering potential growth.

Hunter Valley grower Colin Steady has trialled 14 different hemp varieties and he said finding someone to process a hemp crop is one of the problems.

“You need to talk to a processor and there’s only two and they’ve got more than they can use for the next 12 months.”

Growers struggling with varieties

Mark Skews is the national coordinator of the hemp crop trials being run by AgriFutures Australia at nine sites around the country. 

He says there is a lot of variability in the varieties they’ve trialled and the results differ according to location.

“In the south-east of SA we’ve seen some of the highest yields in Australia at nearly 2.5 tonnes/hectare,” he said.

But at the Narrabri trial site run by the University of Sydney they planted nine varieties at three different sowing periods, and two of them failed due to soil temperatures over 50 degrees. 

Based on the last successful planting, the best varieties for that region in north-west New South Wales are Fibror-79 and Ruby.

AgriFutures is trialing hemp varieties at nine locations across Australia.(Supplied: AgriFutures Australia)

Farmers are now just waiting for the trials to be completed around the country to give them the best advice about what to grow and where.

Agrifutures Australia will publish the results soon, according to the organisation’s Dr Olivia Reynolds.

“We’re now in our third and final year and we hope to make some firm recommendations around which varieties to plant and what is the best time to plant,” she said.

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