So you want to be a hemp farmer

You’ve decided to grow hemp. Afterall, everything you’ve heard and read online indicates it’s easy to grow, doesn’t require pesticides and Australia has no major hemp pests or diseases. How hard can it be? Well, I guess that depends on your experience as a farmer. This blog tackles the most common questions asked by newcomers and will help you decide whether hemp is the right crop for you.

Question 1 – Do you have agricultural land?

We get all sorts of people calling us for information on how to grow and you’d be surprised how many city dwellers with an acre of land in the peri-urban fringes think growing hemp will be the career change they’ve been dreaming of. Not that easy folks, hemp is an agricultural crop and it needs to be treated like one. Unless you have a high-return, value-added end product then growing hemp on a small scale is not going to give you a return on the cost of growing it. If you are simply growing it and selling the seed or fibre as a raw commodity then you need hectares of the stuff. Plus you simply won’t get a license if you are in urban zones.

Question 2 – Do you have farming experience?

Anyone can put seeds in the ground and get them to grow. But growing a high yielding, uniform agricultural crop is another story. Even farmers with generations of knowledge and all the right equipment struggle to grow a uniformly healthy, harvestable and profitable crop every season. You need knowledge on:

  • Soil health and management
  • Crop nutrition requirements
  • Seed varieties
  • Pest and disease control
  • Irrigation
  • Sowing and harvesting machinery
  • Sowing density and early crop vigour
  • Seed cleaning/drying and storage

Even with strong knowledge on all of these points your crop may still fail. If you do not have agricultural experience please think twice about whether growing is for you or not. There are many other ways you can be involved in the hemp industry without growing it yourself.

Question 3 – Do you qualify for a license?

The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development acts as the Registrar for the Industrial Hemp Act 2004 in Western Australia. This legislation enables licensees to cultivate, harvest and/or process industrial hemp on a commercial scale.

Applicants (whether individuals or members of a partnership or body corporate) must:

  • Be over 18 years of age
  • Be a fit and proper person and of good character
  • Have sufficient material, human and financial resources to carry on any activity to be covered by a licence
  • Have suitable means and premises at which to cultivate and harvest hemp. This must be outside urban areas.
  • NOT have been found guilty of a serious drug offence
  • NOT have association with a person who is not of good character or who has been found guilty of a serious drug offence

Read more on licensing industrial hemp activities in Western Australia and download the application forms for a license from DPIRD using the above link or search ‘hemp’ on the DPIRD website.

Question 4 – Where can I purchase seed?

The largest suppliers of hemp seed for sowing in Western Australia are HempGro (the WA Hemp Growers’ Co-op) and Food, Fibre and Land International. HempGro are currently doing varietal trials to find which varieties best suit various agricultural regions in WA. You don’t have to be a member to purchase seed through HempGro, but there are healthy discounts and other benefits if you do chose to sign up.

Question 5 – What are the agronomy basics?

As hemp is a new crop to WA agriculture the early adopters have had to rely on overseas and interstate knowledge. This is highly applicable in a general sense and enough to get newcomers started.

HempGro offers an AgPack to new members covering off on the agronomy basics. Information is also available in the Manjimup hemp milling pre-feasibility study, stage 1, available on DPIRD’s website. Some main points to get you started are:

  • Hemp grows best in soil with pH 6-7.
  • Hemp hates waterlogging and compacted soil.
  • Irrigation is generally required for a high yielding crops.
  • Crop management varies with crop purpose i.e. seed, fibre or both.
  • Variety is extremely important.

Get your growing location, your soil and your variety right and you are well on your way to growing a successful and high yielding crop.

Question 6 – Will it be profitable?

This is probably the most difficult question to answer as hemp is still such a new crop in Western Australia and we haven’t yet identified the best varieties for our climate, meaning we are still a way off reaching potential yield per hectare. In other words, if it isn’t profitable now, it very well may be in five years time. If you’re after numbers, the Manjimup hemp milling pre-feasibility study, stage 2, available on DPIRD’s website, will give you some idea about costs and return in a specific scenario. As a rough guide hemp seed sold at the farm gate is generally valued at around $3500/tonne and a well-managed crop can yield about 1 tonne/ha. Hemp stems can be sold for around $250/tonne, baled and yield is generally about 5-10t/ha. If farming on a small scale (<5 ha), you will probably need to value-add like we do here at Vasse Valley, or have other sources of income on your farm. It may take a few seasons to offset the initial irrigation set up costs if you do not have it in place already. There is definitely scope for profit in broadacre farming once markets have been established.

Question 7 – Who will I sell it to/what are my markets?

As a grower, you will generally sell your harvest to hemp processing businesses. However, the main issue facing the Western Australian hemp industry in 2019 is lack of processing infrastructure for both seed and fibre. The good news is several independent businesses are currently acting on plans to set up processing facilities in various regions of WA. Once processed, the seed will be available to industries including food, animal feed and cosmetics, fuel and solvents, either as dehulled seed, oil or other byproducts. Processing the stems is a bit trickier, but plans are underway to set up a facility in the Margaret River Region. Once separated, the hurd will no doubt be snapped up by the building industry. It is not yet clear where the fibre component will end up, but there are many uses for the fibre so buyers will no doubt be found. As a grower, proximity to these processing facilities will affect your bottom line so do your research on freight costs etc. If a seed processor is close by then it will probably be wiser to grow for seed rather than fibre. Businesses currently investing in processing facilities include Mirreco (fibre), Hemponics Australia (seed), Ridgeview Building Company Pty Ltd (fibre).

Hemp is a wonderful crop to grow and we at Vasse Valley would love to see the WA hemp industry thrive! Check out our tasty hemp seed condiments on our online shop and start thinking about how you can play a part in WA’s growing hemp industry.

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