The UK hemp project in 1993

Ian Low

Director, Hemcore Ltd., Station Road, Felsted, Essex CM6 3HL, United Kingdom

        Pulling, retting, grassing, breaking, scutching and hackling were going on in East Anglia in Elizabethan times.   There was even a law which enforced hemp growing on pain of a fine.  The hemp produced was quite coarse and was used for smocks, sheets, bolsters, fishing nets and rope.  All over the area there are village names to remind us of the long hemp growing tradition such as Hempstead, Heckfield and Bleach Green.  So in 1993 when Hemcore was formed by two East Anglian businesses to redevelop the hemp crop in the area, we were treading a well-worn path, albeit one that hadn't been walked for 50 years.
        The reasoning behind our move into hemp production involved a common mixture of circumstances and opportunities, in detail:
        Market Openings:  for the fibre into paper and textiles, for the core of the plant as livestock bedding, for the seed as fishing bait and bird seed.
        Growing Opportunities:  with farmers looking for alternative crops to remove the pressure from over production in most of the main arable crop markets.
        Environmental Benefits:  which were commonly seen as coming from hemp cultivation, both in the growing crop and in the replacement of synthetic or imported products in the market place.

The project
        In 1992 my partner Robert Lukies and myself set up a trials programme covering as many different varieties of hemp as we could obtain.  These trials were taken through to harvest at Hatfield Broad Oak in Essex and the resulting plants were trial processed.
        Following the successful outcome of these trials, a decision was made to go ahead with a commercial venture.  An application was made to the British Home Office for a licence to grow 600 ha (1,500 acres) of hemp in 1993.  After considerable discussion a licence was granted on February 18, 1993, and our plans went into action for establishing a new U.K. hemp industry.
        In March 1993, Hemcore Ltd. was formed.   It is owned by Harlow Agricultural Merchants, a large East Anglian Merchanting Company and Robert Lukies, who farms and runs a seed processing business in Essex.   During March and April, 30 growers were chosen and sites were approved by the Home Office.

The growing crop
      Drilling took place during the first week of May at approximately 50 kg/ha of seed, drilled 2-3 cm deep on 10-18 cm row widths.  We found it important to obtain as fine as possible a seed bed with minimum compaction and used conventional cereal drills for sowing.  No agricultural chemicals were used in the growing of the crop, but we did find it very responsive to fertilizer.  We used fertilizer rates of about 120 kg/ha of nitrogen, 100 kg/ha of phosphate and 160 kg/ha of potash.
        The impressive growth rate of the hemp crop is already well known and our crops certainly lived up to expectations, average heights reached were 3 metres with some up to 3.5 m.  Maximum heights were reached in early to mid August.  There were noticeable plant losses between establishment and full growth, with final plant populations ending at around 180 per metre square.
        In July and August, a number of incidents occurred where people stole cuttings of our contract crops.  It is extremely doubtful whether they were rewarded for their troubles, but they were certainly of considerable nuisance value and caused the authorities some concern.  One particularly troubled crop was harvested in early August to get it out of the way, otherwise harvesting did not begin until September.

The harvest
      September and early October were very wet in East Anglia in 1993.  This proved a considerable test of our pioneering harvest plans.  Whilst we tried different machines and methods, the mainstay of our operation hinged on a modified rape swather and John Deere Round Balers.   We are particularly grateful to the latter company for their wholehearted support.   Although weather conditions delayed a large proportion of the baling until mid October, we were delighted by the condition of the crop, and in the end every hectare of every field was cleared.  Following such a steep learning curve, we intend to put into practice for the '94 harvest a number of new plans that give us a lot of confidence for the long-term future of hemp production.

The market
      I will not go into detail on processing, as a large amount of what we are doing is at the prototype stage and all of it is confidential.  Suffice to say that we have at the moment two products coming out of the factory, fibre from the stem sheath for paper and possibly for the textile trade, and the core of the stem which is going into the livestock bedding market.   Both products have created a lot of interest and there seems at the moment to be good demand.

      1993 was a year of considerable achievement for Hemcore.  The ripples from what we have done have gone round the world.  We succeeded in a difficult year to grow and harvest 600 hectares of hemp and we will build on this in 1994.  We have continued to do extensive variety and agronomic trials and these too will be extended this year.  Processing caused us many more problems than we originally envisaged.  Marketing will also present a challenge as the present volumes are only satisfying a small niche market.  We have made it clear from the outset that Hemcore's philosophy, unlike that of much of the agricultural world, will be to satisfy market leads, not to be output driven.