Europe: Hemp - A Break Crop Alternative

By Dominic Kilburn, Farmers Guardian

There is a truth that must be heard! GROWERS still to make a final decision on cropping choice this spring, and those with a larger acreage to drill than originally planned for, could look to grow hemp under contract as an alternative to regular break crops.

With fast establishment and rapid growth, neither herbicides nor fungicides are required for growing hemp.

That’s according to East Anglian-based processing and marketing company Hemcore, which says that hemp can offer a competitive gross margin – characterised by high yields and low input – while providing additional benefits such as good weed control opportunities, fewer field operations and improved soils.

Richard Smart, who joined the company as fieldsman for the crop earlier this year, says that Hemcore is actively searching for farmers to grow the crop this spring following last year’s opening of a state-of-the-art factory in Halesworth, Suffolk – capable of a 50,000 tonnes per year throughput.

Demand for hemp being grown in the UK has been limited by processing technology and new and developing end markets, he says.

“Now, with established markets for the fibre in the automotive industry and domestic insulation, horse bedding and construction from the woody core of the stem, things are really moving forward both in the UK and Europe.

“In addition, the new factory being able to handle straw that has undergone minimal retting means we can continue to expand and develop hemp as a crop. Factory throughput will increase by as much as 15,000 tonnes in 2009,” comments Mr Smart.

“This is a quantum leap forward in terms of throughput and as a result we are forecasting planting a minimum of 6,000 acres of the crop this season, twice that of 2008,” he adds.

Mr Smart says that the main contract on offer this year is a fixed price for straw dependent on month of movement.

For harvest movement of straw the price is £125/tonne, or £135/tonne for movement in October. “Thereafter, growers will receive an additional £1.50/tonne, per month up until the following August,” adds Mr Smart.

“Storage on farm is very much a key benefit in terms of price.”

According to Mr Smart, typical yield in the first season is 6-7.5 tonnes per hectare that could realise a gross margin of £547/ha (based on a March movement). This compares favourably with Hemcore’s gross margin estimations for spring barley yielding at 6t/ha (gm of £265/ha), and peas yielding at 4t/ha (gm of £399/ha).

Even higher margins

A second contract is on offer where a grain harvest is taken from a crop of an earlier maturing variety to go for cold crushing to produce a high quality culinary oil rich in omega 3. The risks are higher but these are rewarded by significantly higher gross margins, he explains.

“Most hemp growing costs are associated with harvesting, fertiliser and haulage to the factory,” says Mr Smart. “The majority of our growers are based in the South East, but hemp is also grown in the East Midlands and as far as North Lincolnshire,” he comments.

Sowing date for hemp is in May when the soil and night temperatures have warmed up and cultivations depend on soil and seedbed condition. “Hemp likes good structured soil with a pH above 6.5 and it doesn’t like compaction,” says Mr Smart.

“It really just needs to be drilled evenly into a moist seedbed to get it started.”

Mr Smart says hemp is also a very good soil conditioner, drawing up moisture from the ground through until harvest, and land can often be direct drilled, or min-tilled immediately afterwards in readiness for the following crop.

With fast establishment and rapid growth, he says no herbicides nor fungicides are required. Pigeons are a probable pest until the crop has reached 2 true leaves and will need to be kept at bay.

Ideally growers should take the opportunity to get the seedbed greened up and sprayed off with glyphosate to remove weed competition, particularly problem weeds such as resistant black-grass and bromes prior to drilling, he advises.

“Hemp will require 100-120kg of nitrogen per hectare and responds well to biosolids and organic manures. Slow release manures are the best as the crop grows continuously through until August,” he says.

Hemcore’s aim is to cut the crop (via a contractor) during the second two weeks of August and, after 2-3 weeks, during which time retting can begin – the process of bacteria break down of stem tissues – the dry hemp straw is (Hesston) baled and stored on farm until required for processing.

Hemcore’s aim is to cut the crop during the second two weeks of August.