Wednesday evening “In Crops” hosted a meeting in Bury St Edmunds to discuss growing hemp in the UK.
Currently Industrial hemp is grown either for the seeds to produce oil (for use in the food and cosmetic industries) or for fibre (for use, amongst other things in the building, automotive and marine industries) such is the versatility of this wonderful plant!
Could a dual purpose hemp plant be possible, reaping both benefits from the single planting?
Firstly a plant where the seed and the fibre mature at the same time would be required (seeds ripen some one month after the fibre is fit for harvest.) Secondly a suitable harvesting system or machine would be needed. The seed requires plenty of tlc whereas the strongest natural fibre in the stem needs the opposite.
Steven Eyles an agricultural engineer spoke eloquently and with no little experience on the matter. He has already designed and built a prototype machine for the single produce harvest. Its simplicity and functionality was praised by those farmers who had used it during the past 2 harvests.
So two main items top the “wish list”A plant breeding program (most current varieties use French seed) and the chance for Steven to take his harvesting machine to the next level. Both need investment. The inevitable question is “who’s going to pay?”
Hemp Technology, the single main end user, was also represented. Their processing plant handles not only hemp but also flax, linseed and oilseed rape fibre. Their customers include, BMW and Jaguar cars whose door inserts and parcel shelves are made from processed hemp (lighter than the synthetic products they are replacing and of course bio degradable), blocks and heat/noise insulation panels for the building trade and even the tough, woody part of the stem known a s the “shiv” is utilized as a strong and absorbent animal bedding (horses and chicken in particular).
For an outsider such as me it does appear that a crossroads is looming. If the hemp crop in the UK is to kick on to become a profitable commercial crop (for which it undoubtedly has the potential) and more than a small niche crop it needs to expand. In order to expand it needs serious investment and only then can the crop attract a wider uptake with the farming community. .. so which did come first the chicken or the egg?!
I for one hope the crop area grows and that these pioneering (and very patient) farmers along with the work and investment of Hemp Technology over the past decade will finally land a deserving harvest.