THE growers responsible for a 200 hectare commercial hemp crop less than 100 kilometres from Bendigo believe it is the biggest of its kind in Australia, putting them among the local pioneer growers of edible hemp.
But until last November, Hemp Foods Australia, for which the seed was grown, was not allowed to sell in Australia the hemp-based food products it makes in a production facility in New South Wales.
So what has changed? Sharon Kemp reports.
THE Food Standards Code changed late in 2017 and permitted for the first time the sale of low-psychoactive, or industrial, hemp seed as food.
After 17 years of lobbying, it was an opportunity for food scientist and HFA chief executive Paul Benhaim to draw attention to the nutritional value of the grain which is high in essential fatty acids omega three and omega six as well as protein, and steer the public conversation away from recreational use that has long reinforced legislative bans on hemp.
It is only after strict testing of the hemp seed to ensure it contains less than 0.5 per cent of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol that creates the high for users, that the grain can be legally sold.
If companies like HFA can convince ordinary Australians the grain is good for them, and they won’t fail a breath test after eating it, they expect demand for hemp seed will rise.
Having already spent 17 years in the business in Australia and claiming some credit for driving hemp’s legalisation, Mr Benhaim wants the first mover advantage, so he wasted no time putting seed in central Victorian ground after the decision.
That crop, planted in December in a location HFA wants kept secret, is just weeks away from being
Farm manager David Geltch has visited the crop most days to check on its progress and he is particularly alert at the moment for signs the hemp seeds are hardening.
At that stage, harvesting will begin.
At completion, Mr Geltch and head of operations Matt Davis will be able assign a yield to the crop and set down improvements for next year.
Mr Benheim is declaring the crop a success but as a first attempt at this scale in Australia, Mr Geltch and Mr Davis outlined the challenges which included pests.
“The first mover advantage is always good but it comes with its challenges too,” Mr Davis said.
“We could have put a 200 hectare crop in and lost the lot but we were prepared to take that risk.
“Hopefully taking the punt and risks we have, the reward will be there year after year.”
HFA also wants their experience to teach a new generation of hemp farmers.
The company has documented the crop’s growth from the start which it will eventually upload on its website as an educational tool.
Mr Benhaim is keen to contract new growers given he estimates the central Victorian crop won’t even produce enough for HFA’s existing supply chain “let alone our future growth therefore we are very keen to increase production as soon as possible”.
“Right now our company is turning over more than $3 million in sales so we are still a small business but that is the foundation from which we can sell it as food,” he said.
A week before media visited the hemp crop, the industrial hemp sector staged an inaugural conference in Geelong that it intends to hold every two years as the industry expands.
The two-day conference drew speakers from the US, New Zealand, Canada, Germany and all Australian states as interest in the product increases.
Industrial hemp differs from medicinal cannabis but it is likely debate around Victoria’s legalisation and development plans for the latter has helped the overall case for hemp.
But Mr Benhaim gently protests against describing hemp as a potential new superfood.
“It is something that has been used as far back as history records go,” he said.
“They never stopped using it in eastern Europe which is where I first sourced hemp seeds 25 years ago, they used it in soups and in traditional snacks for certain
“But the modern use of hemp seeds are really only just under 30 years old, and are predominately in Canada, in North America and Europe.”
Mr Benhaim’s familiarity and confidence in hemp’s future drives optimism in HFA, particularly for the Australian members who have had little to do with the product.
There is also a level of excitement in being among the first to deliver the commercial crop, and humour about the potential interest from recreational users.
“It is great being part of a company which is basically at the knife’s edge of a new industry,” Mr Geltch said.
He has a career producing tomatoes on family farms near Echuca and growing sandlewood in Australia’s north.
“It has been a really fantastic learning curve and, moving forward, hopefully there will be a lot more of it,” he said.
As for the people who might be interested in the crop for its imagined high, the farming team has noticed car lights near the crop at night.
“They can take as much as they want, smoke as much as they want but they will probably be asking, why isn’t this working,” Mr Davis said.
“All they are going to get is a headache.”