Hemp, or Cannabis sativa, was widely grown across the UK throughout history and once upon a time it could be found on many farms as a staple crop. But despite its multitude of uses from culinary to construction, it has struggled to gain traction in more recent years. Alice Dyer reports.
Since 1993, farmers in the UK have been able to grow cannabis under a Home Office licence, but with less than 50 industrial hemp licences currently issued to farmers, the area under cultivation here is limited.
Hemp has a multitude of uses from biofuels, to human and animal bedding, to the construction material, hempcrete.
But while it sits under the Home Office as a controlled substance rather than an agricultural crop, it will struggle to meet its potential says Rebekah Shaman, chief executive of the British Hemp Alliance.
“The industrial hemp industry isn’t established at all in the UK, unlike Europe where they’re planting thousands of hectares. We’re very limited in the UK and one of the main problems is that hemp is still a controlled substance.”
Because the fast growing, dual-use crop is only in the ground for around four months in the summer, it is an ideal addition to the rotation, she says.
“With the right R&D there’s potential to develop products that are sustainable and carbon negative and will allow certain industries, like construction, to reach their carbon targets.
“But with these barriers to growth we are missing a massive opportunity for British farmers who were once leaders in hemp production.”
Lack of innovation thanks to the tough licensing process is putting industry ambition ‘in a straight jacket’ says Dr Colin Morgan, business development director at ADAS, who has been involved with a number of global research projects on hemp production and standards.
Dr Morgan says: “There are currently only 66 varieties of hemp registered in the EU, and therefore available to UK growers. Because of the limited number of varieties and the challenging process to grow hemp in the UK, there hasn’t been a great deal of innovation in the industry because we’ve essentially had a prohibition. We haven’t had the same level of investment as other crops.”
Despite this, there is an ‘exceptional number’ of farmers talking about growing the crop says Dr Morgan, with the NFU recently holding a hemp roundtable meeting.
He adds: “Part of the issue is the challenge surrounding the licence application - the Home office only give a small window of time to respond. The inadequate processing facilities in the UK don’t help, because farmers must declare where the crop is going before applying for their licence.
“If it can be proven through proper empirical work that there is a very positive economic benefit to growing industrial hemp in the UK, then I think it could have a bright future. But this will only be if it gets easier to grow it and if there’s more innovation in the marketplace – that will be underpinned by sustainability drivers and a good economic case that drives policy.”
Twenty-six-year-old Edward Burman who farms near Hatton in Warwickshire began growing industrial hemp last year, as a way of creating an additional income stream for the family farm.
Starting with small trials of 0.2 hectares, he has used the seed to create his own brand of hemp seed oil. The oil is being now marketed in local farm shops and health food stores, after his research determined there was lucrative demand for the cooking oil as a healthy, provincial food product.
This year, with only 30% of the farm’s planned wheat, barley, oilseed rape and beans in the ground, Mr Burman is increasing his hemp area to 10ha - another bonus to the crop’s late drilling date, he says.
“Agronomically, it wins farmers over. It’s planted in May, when all the other crops are in and it’s very
late harvesting so you will be harvesting during the second to third week of October after a lot of
your primary cultivations are done, and some of your cereals are drilled. We liked the fact it also
stretches our harvest window out so we’re getting more use and increased efficiency out of the machine, whilst easing the pressure on the bulk of the arable acreage.”
Hemp seed is cheaper than oilseed rape, and inputs costs are minimal, with the crop requiring just 120kg/ha of nitrogen, Mr Burman says.
“Hemp is a very dense crop, and we’ve already seen the grass-weed coverage is second to none, so we don’t need herbicides. We’re also finding it to be very popular amongst the birds and bees too.”
Hemp can also improve soil quality through phytoremediation – the uptake of heavy metals from the ground – and it has robust carbon sequestration capabilities, says Mr Burman.
“It has a strong and intrusive root system that breaks soil down and airs it out.
“On top of this, you’ve also got multiple by-products with very little input. You can get 5-8t/ha of biomass just in straw depending on the variety, as well as the seed, and the seed tailings and oil.”
In a bid to create a zero waste strategy for the crop, Mr Burman bought a specific press for the hemp seed oil that compresses the hemp tailings into feed nuts for the farm’s 500-head flock of sheep. Metabolic energy tests have shown the feed has high protein levels, and Mr Burman is now working on a blend to lower the farm’s feed bill.
He says: “We have this protein available to us as a by-product of the cooking oil sales so we’re trying to keep the whole thing full circle and zero waste, and hopefully finish lambs quicker. This is all cost and carbon saving. If I can hit my target with the hemp seed oil sales, the gross margin compared to other crops is an absolute no brainer.”
He adds: “Hemp can easily create scepticism amongst farmers, but when you invite them in and tell them more about the crop, I have found many are often keen to get involved and learn more. The licensing process can be quite intimidating for non-computer savvy farmers, but as long as you’re thorough and respond promptly, you should be okay.”
Source: Edward Burman
Anyone that wants to grow hemp requires a licence from the Home Office. During the application, growers will be Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checked and must provide field grid references and full details on the area the crop is being grown. The Home Office may impose restrictions, for example if the farm is in the vicinity of schools or areas of public access, or request that you screen the crop.
Generally, applications are considered by assessing the electronic application only, but applicants may be subject to a compliance visit.
New licences cost about £580, with licence renewals costing £326. They are valid for three growing seasons.