The prospects for hemp, with potentially a wide variety of uses, prompted a Marton couple to grow the crop. Belinda Howard reports.

The remnants of Cyclone Gita wiped out Tom Welch’s first hemp crop last summer, but the Marton farmer hasn’t let that stop him.

His next crop is now in the ground and he’s hoping for a good harvest in 2019.

Tom and his wife Melissa are the third generation to work on Cannock Farm, just north of Marton in Rangitikei. With dairy prices falling, and frustration with bureaucracy growing, Tom decided to explore other options for the farm. After researching a range of arable crops, the couple settled on hemp and pumpkin seeds.

Melissa was concerned initially about the hemp crop, associating it with “the druggie thing”.

“But when you see what good it can do, you change your mind,” she says. The only use for Tom’s hemp crop is the seeds, which can be cold-pressed for their oil, and the remaining material ground into flour.

In Europe, Australia and Canada hemp is widely used as animal feed, but that isn’t permitted in New Zealand. Tom had hoped to use the by-product to feed his cows, but a recent statement from the Ministry for Primary Industries put a stop to that. The ban is because of fears that trace amounts of cannabinoids in milk or meat products could affect export markets. While hemp has virtually no THC (the psycho-active component in marijuana), it has higher levels of CBD – the cannabinoids used in medicinal products.

“I hope the Government will change its thinking and allow hemp to be fed to cows,” Tom says. “It would be a magnificent food, and cheap too because it’s a by-product.” He says the crop produces 2-3 tonnes drymatter (DM)/hectare of leaf. There are other options for using the leaves and stem, such as paper, textiles and building materials, but Tom says at this stage NZ doesn’t have the infrastructure to process hemp into these products on a large scale.

However, if the popularity of hemp continues to grow, that could come.

“In previous years there’s been only about 200 hectares of industrial hemp planted,” he says, “but this season the area is estimated to be up to 1000ha.”

Ironically, at almost the same time as MPI said hemp by-products couldn’t be fed to animals, the Government legalised selling hemp seed products for human food. This decision potentially opens up a large new market for Tom and other hemp growers, because previously only the seed oil could be sold as a food product, but now hemp seed flour is also a legitimate product. Tom is growing hemp for food products, not for medicinal purposes, so this is good news.

This season Tom has again planted four hectares in hemp, with another two hectares planted in pumpkins for pumpkin seed products.

The pumpkins are a variety called Camillo, bred specifically for their seed. Tom spent about $19,000 for a harvester that lifts and crushes the pumpkins, expelling the seed into a bin. It’s then soaked overnight, washed in a home-designed washer, and dried at a commercial seed dryer.

The seeds are then either packaged to sell as whole seed, crushed for oil or ground as flour.

The pumpkin seed products are definitely aimed at a niche market, with whole seeds retailing at $25/kg.

“It’s possible to import pumpkin seeds from China for about $8/kg wholesale, so price is a challenge,” Tom says. “The difference is our product is local and high quality.” Imported pumpkin seeds tend to be smaller, more highly processed, and are also fumigated when they arrive in NZ.

The couple are looking for direct selling opportunities as much as possible, to help offset the price difference.

“We’re pretty new to market selling, so there’s a lot to learn,” Melissa says.

“People taste the product though, and always say it’s great.” They are also working on getting the products into retail outlets, although the price point is an issue, and direct sales are available through their website

Melissa’s background in graphic design has been helpful. She’s done all the design work for Cannock Harvest, the brand name the couple are using for their hemp and pumpkin products.

The pumpkin flesh can be used as a stock feed, but it requires careful management.

“The flesh goes off quite quickly – you’ve got about four days before it can’t be eaten – but we’re looking at doing the equivalent of break-feeding by harvesting the paddock a bit at a time, rather than all at once, to get the most out of it.”

The pumpkins produce about 20t dm/ha of edible (by cows) flesh. “It’s really not a good roasting variety,” Tom says, “although it would be good to find a use for it, maybe as a baby food base.”

In anticipation of a good hemp harvest this season, Tom has bought an old grape harvester. This will shake off the ripe seed, rather than cutting the plant, so he hopes he will be able to get more than one harvest off the area. “The seeds don’t all ripen at the same time, so being able to go over the paddock more than once should help.”

Harvesting can be difficult, because birds love the seed.

“If you can harvest 70% of your seeds, that’s really good,” he says. There’s a fine balance between harvesting too early, and losing unripe seed, and harvesting too late and losing seed to birds or falling from the plant, so being able to go over the paddocks more than once should help to capture more of the seed.

Tom is also trying a new planting regime this year. Instead of planting at 100 plants/square metre, he’s spacing them out a lot more at 1/sq m. He hopes this will give the plants more room, and less competition for water and nutrients will mean each plant grows better.

There’s no hiding Tom and Melissa’s enthusiasm for the potential of hemp as both a human and animal food, as well as being a base for non-food products.

After a difficult few years, the decision to explore some new options for the farm has transformed life for the family.

While the appeal of these niche crops is great, there will always be a place for cows on Cannock Farm, but the focus might move to a small, organic herd, again looking at more niche and higher value outputs.

“If you’re not enjoying it, it’s got a limited life really,” Tom says.

Farm facts:

• Tom and Melissa Welch
• Cannock Farm
• Location: Warrens Road, Marton
• Area: 150ha effective
• Hemp area: Four hectares
• Pumpkin area: two hectares
• Dairy: 20-a-side herringbone
• Cows: 285 Friesian crossbred