Sunday, May 15, 2016
Industrial hemp on trial in Western Australia's south-west
By Anthony Pancia
PHOTO: Industrial hemp has unlimited possibilities, says Glen Ossy-Orley. (ABC Rural: Anthony Pancia)
But as three hectares of industrial hemp reach maturity on the outskirts of Manjimup, a new problem has emerged for Jack Bendotti — exactly how to harvest it.For now, the birds do not seem too interested, nor do the usual assortment of bugs prone to latching on to crops in Western Australia's south-west.
The fourth-generation potato farmer decided to trial the crop primarily to see how it would grow in the region.
But he also had a farmer's instinctive eye towards the future following the recent announcement that the potato industry in WA was to be deregulated.
The announcement left a lot of growers slightly unsure of where their futures lay, and while Mr Bendotti has not lost hope just yet, he is not beyond putting the feelers out.
"We started looking around at different alternatives and we had looked at hemp over the years," Mr Bendotti told the ABC on the drive out to the crop.
"So we decided to give it a go and I have to say, we are pretty impressed so far."
As other states in Australia push towards the legalisation of medicinal marijuana, for now in WA it is only legal to grow industrial hemp, albeit in commercial quantities.
For a fee of $328, an approved grower is free to grow industrial hemp, the leaves and flowering heads of which must not contain more than 0.35 per cent of tetrahydrocannabinol.
Despite this, it is hard to stand amidst such a large quantity and not feel as if a law is somehow being broken, a fact not lost on Mr Bendotti.
"Yeah, you get that," he said with a chuckle while pushing through the crop, most of which is above head height.
"There is a process involved which requires various police clearances and inspections, but it is legal and I took Glen's advice on a lot of it."
Glen is Glen Ossy-Orley, chair of the newly-formed Industrial Hemp Association of Western Australia, who has come along to inspect the crop's progress.
Mr Ossy-Orley supplied the seeds, and in return will get to keep about half of all the seeds from Mr Bendotti's crop, which he intends to put to use "down the track a bit".
PHOTO: Glen Ossy-Orley says hemp is easy to grow and does not need much water. (ABC Rural: Anthony Pancia)
"It's fair to say there's now a lot of interest in industrial hemp in WA," Mr Ossy-Orley said.
"It makes a lot of sense to grow it too. Our climate is perfectly suited to it and the uses for it are endless."
Like Mr Bendotti, Mr Ossy-Orley is impressed with how well the crop has grown in a relatively short amount of time.
"These were planted in February but because they were planted so late in the season, they've all kind of matured at 2 metres," he said.
"Had it been planted in October, we could've been looking at 4 to 5-metre plants."
Mr Ossy-Orley is well aware of the stigma surrounding hemp, but has long been a "proud advocate" of its uses.
"Where do you even start?" he said with a laugh.
"The inner part of the stem, which is called hemp hurd, offers a brilliant alternative to timber and is cheap, fast to grow and has an extremely high fire resistance."
He tells the ABC of the association's 40 members, 30 of whom have licences to grow industrial hemp, and interest is growing.
"My licence number is 0016 and I've had that for two years. The guy with licence number 0015 got his five years ago," he said while sifting through a handful of seeds.
"So there's been a spike in interest for sure, and why not?
"It's a crop that is easy to grow, doesn't need much water, little to no herbicides or pesticides, and at worst can be sowed directly back into the ground to promote all sorts of goodness in the ground."
But for now, attention turns back to the task at hand.
The crop is ready for harvest, but a viable harvesting machine is proving a costly option and above everything, Mr Bendotti has his eye on the bottom line, whatever that may be.
"To tell you the truth, at this stage, we're not entirely sure," he said of the possibility of turning a buck out of the thousands of plants surrounding him.
"Primarily we just wanted to look at how it grew and beyond that, we are looking at how much could be made for oil, then fibres could be a viable alternative."
With that, Mr Ossy-Orley wanders over, runs a hand through the head of a plant, and gathers a handful of seed.
"I started with 10 kilo of these," he said.
"After my first year I had 120 and hopefully by the end of this year, I'll have a couple of tonne.
"The exponential growth of this industry is ginormous, and I would see the same thing for any other farmer that is starting in the hemp industry."