It's early days for New Zealand’s hemp industry but Jenni and John Ridd believe it has a big future, offering farmers a summer rotation crop that is easy to grow, requires very few inputs and has an ever-expanding range of potential uses.
Sure, there are a few problems to be ironed out, particularly around harvesting, but once they’ve been solved they expect plenty more farmers will want to explore what hemp can offer their own farming businesses.
Jenni and John have grown hemp as a summer rotation for the last two years after being approached by Tauranga company The Hemp Farm.
This year they grew 50ha on their Manawatu farm and planted and harvested another 80ha for The Hemp Farm on land the company leased nearby.
The Ridds have always been open to new ideas to get the best out of their farm and how emerging markets can help them achieve that.
That attitude is one of the reasons they were approached by The Hemp Farm, another being that they own all their own harvesting equipment.
Before being approached by The Hemp Farm Jenni and John hadn’t given too much thought how hemp might fit into their mixed cropping farm though they were aware of the crop’s potential, having read about it on the internet.
“We didn’t know much about it but we loved being offered the opportunity to get in there and try something new,” Jenni says.
“It really fitted in with our ethos for farming. It’s a really good, sustainable crop.
“It’s good for the environment and hopefully will end up being good financially as well.”
Though they fatten beef and lambs – numbers of which depend on the market – and winter dairy cows for a neighbouring farm, the glue that holds the Ridds’ farming operation together is cropping.
“We love cropping and everything works around that,” Jenni says.
“We grow wheat, barley, oats, maize, grass seed, peas and now hemp.”
It’s a very versatile crop with uses for every part of the plant though it is still illegal to use the leaf in NZ. In Europe the leaf is cut into silage and used as a cattle feed but that not allowed here because of concerns it could taint milk and meat and have a negative effect on exports.
About a dozen cultivars are approved for use in NZ and the Ridds have been trying different varieties over the past couple of years to see what works best on their property and soils.
This past season they tried dual crop varieties, suitable for both seeds and fibre.
The seeds are used for pressing into oil and for seed stock.
Hemp oil, which is available either in capsules or a bottle, contains the same omega fatty acids found in fish and so is valued for its health benefits. What’s left over from seeds turned into oil is used to produce protein powder and flakes while another food product is hemp seed hearts, a nut-like plant protein.
There’s a very short window from when the seed is ready to harvest and when the birds will strip it so a lot of thought is going into finding a way to lengthen that window.
In some places with few birds growers can leave seeds on the plants for longer so when they are harvested the seeds are drier than is the case here.
To beat the birds the Ridds harvest their seeds with moisture levels of 24% to 40% but that needs to be dried down to 8% or 9% before they can be stored.
To achieve that they had to install their own drying plant, adding another cost to production.
The fibre harvest has a whole different set of problems.
Hemp fibre is known for its strength and the taller the plant the better because of the long stalks produced.
The type the Ridds have been growing is more than 4m high by the time it’s harvested. Though that’s great for quality the drawback is the fibre’s strength makes it hard on harvest machines.
The long lengths end up wrapping around internal engine parts.
“It’s almost like when they make candy floss and it just spins around – you get a whole lot all of a sudden.
“We managed to get a lot of it off but we had to go back regularly and cut it off. We started using knives and in the end we used a grinder. That tells you how strong it is.”
This winter John will be in the farm workshop designing a new harvester that can deal with the problem.
The Ridd farm is very much family-oriented and Jenni says one of the things she loves about farming is seeing their three school-aged children go out to work with John.
Farming is in John’s blood with generations of farming behind him while Jenni grew up on a lifestyle block.
John is the managing director of the farm so he calls the shots and makes most of the decisions though the couple do sit down together and work things through.
“He’ll have a go at anything, particularly cropping or machinery related. He’s got a great number eight wire background. If he can’t find a tool to do what he wants then he’ll make it. He loves working things out and finding solutions.
“I’m a little bit more risk averse, so while he’s go, go, go I’m like ‘Yeah, just hang on … let’s just work it out and make sure it’s viable’.
“As a team we work really well. We balance each other.”
Overcoming challenges is part of day-to-day farming, which Jenni says is very rewarding.
“There’s challenges in every aspect of farming. You’re against the milk price, you’re against the dollar, you’re against the weather, you’re against the machinery.
“You have to develop a sense of resilience and in our family we’re very solutions based. If we’ve got a problem, we don’t like to dwell on it. It’s like, ‘Right, so what are we going to try?’ And if that doesn’t work it’s ‘Right, what are we going to try next?’
“It’s nice having that challenge and it’s a nice sense of accomplishment when you manage to ride over those bumps.”
However, there’s always something else on the horizon too.
“Every day is a new day and every day is a challenge.”
Despite the problems they’ve faced adapting to growing hemp, Jenni and John are committed to the crop.
“We’re going to stick with it. We love the sustainable environmental aspect of it. We think it’s got great potential in the future. People are really clicking on to how great it is. We like things to be as clean and green as possible. That’s got to be better for you. So we’re in it for the long haul.”