Hemp growing and research in Austria - 1995

Christian R. Vogl and J. Hess
Department for Organic Agriculture

University of Agriculture, Forestry and Renewable Resources, Vienna, Austria

From a forgotten to a booming plant
          Austrian farmers were never forbidden to grow hemp.  Scientific institutions were even allowed to grow varieties with a relatively high (>0.3 %) THC content for research purposes (Muster 1995).  Nevertheless, between 1958 and 1995, farmers were not interested in growing this plant as a market for hemp did not exist (Kainer 1995).  As late as 1956 Grünsteidl & Mayerl published a report on experiments with hemp in Styria focusing on the potential of this crop, but hemp growing was already in decline and they could not prevent its demise.  The reasons for this are the same as for other countries and are well explained by Karus & Leson (1994).  For the last three decades it was commonly accepted that growing hemp meant producing drugs.  The old Austrian tradition of growing and processing hemp seems to have been lost (Kainer 1995).
          It was the book by Herer & Bröckers (1993) that freshly inspired Austrian hemp activists.  They started a hemp promotion campaign that rapidly attracted the interest of media and farmers.  The Austrian Hemp Institute (Oesterreichisches Hanf Institut -OEHI) was founded and is sucessfully promoting hemp with its magazine "hanfMAGAZIN".  When Austria joined the EU, Austrian representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry were also introduced to hemp in Brussels.  The first Austrian workshop on hemp was held in December 1994 (Bundesanstalt für Landtechnik 1995).  It was organized by the Ministry for Agriculture and Forestry and the Federal Institute of Agricultural Energeering, Wieselburg, with international participation (Höppner 1995, Pittet 1995).
          Since then, anyone who has heard about hemp has struggled to get more information on growing the crop, to develop contacts with experienced members of the hemp world and, last but not least, to get seeds of EU-conforming varieties for which a subsidy of about 10,619 ATS/ha (7 ATS = 1 DM = 0.70 US$) can be claimed (Zoch 1995).

The first growing season in Austria
          Kautzen, a small village in the north of Lower Austria, is known for its innovative energy policy, based on locally produced biomass by Rapsenergie GmbH.  The local biomass complex also includes engines fueled with various cold-pressed seed oils.  Farmers from Kautzen together with their local provider of seeds, Scherner GmbH, and Rapsenergie GmbH, requested 25 tons of Felina 34.  Hechenbichler GmbH from Innsbruck ordered the seeds from France, Scherner GmbH sold it at 110ATS/kg and the rush began.
          In 1995, about 250 ha of Felina 34 and a maximum of 50 ha of other varieties (Hungarian, Polish, Romanian) were sown in Upper Austria, Lower Austria, Burgenland, Styria and Carinthia.  Not all imported seed was sold (as farmers bought less seed than anticipated) and not all farmers growing hemp applied for the EU-subsidies, because of their sowing non-EU-conforming varieties (Agro Market Austria 1995, Hechenbichler 1995).
          At sowing time in April 1995, farmers had no agronomically valid information on how they should do their job.  They were told by "hemp fanatics" and agriculture magazines (all copying Herer & Bröckers 1993, but adding still more optimism) that hemp grows everywere, suppresses all weeds, needs almost no nutrients, leaves a healthy soil and has no problems with pests and diseases.  They were advised to drill 50 kg/ha at 10 -15 cm inter-row widths.  For seed production, they were told to sow "less" at a "greater" inter-row distance.  Farmers then waited for the infamous 4,000 kg oil yields (Herer and Bröckers 1995), plants that grew up to 7 m in 100 days (Hübner 1995) and more biomass than any other plant would produce (Anonymous 1994, Forsthuber 1994, Kessler 1995).  More realistic agronomic facts from hemp producing countries (e.g. The Netherlands, Spain, France, Hungary and Romania), as well as information from old publications were only available to a few producers and at institutions already engaged in hemp research.
          The farmers learned from their own experiences.  The author’s own observations at 40 hemp growing sites and interviews with conventional and organic farmers show that farmers undertook experiments by sowing seeds at rates between 2 kg/ha and 50 kg/ha, and with row width ranging from 10 cm to 45 cm.  Where the soil was compacted or influenced by a high ground water level (including localized flooding after heavy Spring rains) hemp did not germinate or only grew a few centimeters, while weeds developed successfully.  Where nutrients were not easily accessible between the fourth week of growing and flowering, hemp stopped its development and allowed weeds (e.g., Cirsium arvense, Setaria glauca, Panicum crus-galli and Anthemis arvensis) to invade.  In these cases decreased row widths did not affect weed development.  Even with narrow row widths (e.g., 12 cm) and high plant densities (e.g., 300 plants/m2) weeds were more successful than hemp in the cases mentioned.  Hemp grown on sandy soils with low pH also exhibited poor growth in several cases.  The sporadic presence of deer, birds, beetles, grasshoppers and slugs, as well as development of Botrytis cinerea, caused only a small amount of local damage.  Heavy thunderstorms during early summer caused losses in some cases from lodging (knock-down).  The farmers suggested that this toppling was probably due to overuse of nitrogen fertilizer.
          This year hemp fiction became hemp reality for many farmers in Austria.  The majority had no problems.  The crop grew well.  All these successful farmers are waiting anxiously and with curiosity for the harvest.  Different harvesting techniques will be tested and nobody really knows which ones will work successfully.  At the time of writing, harvest is ongoing and these first experiences cannot be systematically described.

Hemp growing - a new fact of life for the police, too
          Although growing hemp to produce fibre or seed is legal in Austria, a lot of farmers had problems with local authorities and were accused of producing drugs.  They had to suffer interrogations and frequent visits from federal and local police.  This shows that information about hemp at the federal level often does not reach local police authorities.  It is now recommended that local authorities be notified of hemp plantations in advance.  The Ministry of Health should also be notified of the intended non-drug related end products.  Seedbag labels and EU subsidy applications should be ready to be shown when the farmers are interviewed by police.  Copies should be kept separate from the originals to prevent confiscation of the latter.

Hemp processing and trade
          Among the major motivations for farmers to grow hemp were reports repeating the fallacy that hemp seed yields are higher than with rape seed (7.0-11.7 t/ha) (Herer and Bröckers 1995).  An energy use in Kautzen (see above) in Elsbett-Engines was planned for seeds, and hemp straw was to be burned in local biomass energy conversion facilities.  With realistic reported seed-yields of between 500 and 1,000 kg /ha, seed production is still interesting, but only for conversion to oil by individual farmers.  Some farmers, like J. Schühmann from Upper Austria, have experience in pressing and selling oil (soy bean, rapeseed, sunflower) for assorted purposes.  Various groups of farmers plan to press oil in regional oil pressing facilities (e.g., Brennerei Heidenreichstein).  They are in contact with buyers who will sell the oil for direct consumption, for body care products, natural paints or for other purposes.  Even bakeries are interested in the seed for the production of special breads and pastries.
          Still more complicated is the marketing of hemp stalks or fibre, as no hemp processing plant exists in Austria.  Both of the Austrian flax processing plants (Rastenfeld and Knittelfeld) are interested in testing hemp and helping to develop hemp fibre as a complement, but not competitor, to flax.  They are not however able to buy or process large quantities.  Karl Ströml from Rohemp Romania is not only producing hemp fibre and seed in Romania, but has recently founded Rohemp Austria.  He plans to build a complete hemp processing line in Styria.  As transport of bulk stalks is difficult because of their volume, the broad marketing of hemp fibre is, with some exceptions, only a hope for the future.  This year, large quantities of straw will probably be chopped and left on fields or burned in local biomass power-plants.
          The Austrian Hemp Association (OEHI) published a list of enterprises interested in buying and processing hemp in its February ‘95 issue of hanfMAGAZIN.  Members get help from the OEHI in making contact with industrial partners.  The following examples for hemp-based product development in Austria show that not only farmers, but also processors and traders want to be a serious part of the hemp movement and want to develop the market:
          - a fire-emergency-ropeladder and a tow-rope by Friedrich Teppernegg
          - designer furniture and storage boxes by Zellform,
          - a line of bodycare products by Peter Rausch's Nektar-Hanfkosmetik,
          - a collection of caps and hats by Querkopf.
          - a collection of clothes by Rosemarie Fink
          Raw material for the products above still comes from Romania, Hungary or other countries.  There is an urgent need for local processing of fibres in order to avoid disappointing Austrian producers.

Research on hemp in Austria
          Research on hemp started when scientists at the Institute for Plant Production and Plant Breeding at the University for Agriculture / Vienna began to examine the suitability of hemp biomass for energy production in 1991.  Plots with different plant densities and soil nutrient levels were established and the first experience gained in growing and burning hemp (Liebhard 1995a).  In 1995, experiments were conducted with 4 different varieties at four different sites in Austria to examine yields of fibre, seed and biomass in relation to different sowing and harvesting dates (Liebhard 1995b).
          Since 1994 scientists have been working with hemp at the Federal Experimental Farm Wieselburg (Bun desversuchswirtschaft Wieselburg) and the Federal Institute for Agricultural Engineering Wieselburg (Bundesanstalt für Landtechnik Wieselburg).  Last year a first experience with the cultivation and harvesting of hemp was gained (Pernkopf 1995a, Wörgetter 1995).  In 1995 two French varieties were grown in experimental plots to examine yields of fibre, seed and biomass.  Special attention is being given to various harvesting techniques (Pernkopf 1995b).
          At the Federal Institute for Plant Production (Bundesamt für Landwirtschaft) 13 varieties on seven different sites are being tested.  Work is in its first year.  After three years of testing a decision will be made on whether new varieties will be listed in the official Austrian List of Varieties.  Varieties accepted by Austria can be listed in the EU and therefore sold easily (Hinterholzer 1995a, Hinterholzer 1995b).  The afore-mentioned Federal Institute is working in close collaboration with the Department for Innovation and Development of New Varieties, RWA/Raiffeisenware Austria.  This Department represents foreign breeders of new promising varieties.  It is there that import of seeds and testing of potential of new species and varieties is organized (Schlagenhaufen 1995).
          A diploma thesis is being written on the history of hemp in Austria at the University in Graz, by Helga Kainer.  The thesis will include the results of 1995 experiments which examine the application of compost or synthetic fertilizer to sites with various hemp varieties (Kainer 1995; Kainer 1996).
          At the Department for Organic Agriculture at the University for Agriculture, Forestry and Renewable Resources in Vienna the authors and other scientists have been discussing the risks and potential in the production of renewable resources in organic agriculture.  In 1995, 10% (22,875) of all Austrian farmers practiced organic agriculture.  As a consequence, the conversion of whole districts to organic agriculture is being increasingly discussed in Austria.  All major Austrian supermarket chains already sell organic produce.  Awareness is growing that not only food, but also a variety of raw materials that society needs must be produced in a sustainable way to build up a sustainable economy (Riddlestone 1994, Lindenthal et al. 1995).  The most sustainable form of agriculture is organic farming (Heissenhuber et al. 1992, Deutscher Bundestag 1994).  Production of renewable resources is not compatible with the input of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or other direct or indirect input based on fossil energy.  Organically grown hemp could, therefore, be a promising renewable resource (Riddlestone et al. 1994, Stickland 1995, Waayer 1995).  In 1995, experimental plots of hemp with French and Hungarian varieties, with different plant densities and in different crop rotations, were established on organic farms to gain first-hand experence with hemp in general and to test yields of biomass, fibre and seeds.

Prospects for 1996
          The year 1995 provided a learning experience which will help to establish expanding hemp production in 1996 based on more accurate information concerning sowing, fertilizing, harvesting and processing.  Hemp is a promising renewable resource, even if it is not a universal remedy or a "miracle plant".  The development of hemp in Austria will depend on the farmers’ experiences with selling their hemp products in 1995.  Even if hemp has a high theoretical potential because of its positive ecological effects or its variety of possible end uses, it will not flourish if farmers do not get a satisfactory price.  The arrangement of fibre processing facilities close to sites of cultivation will present a challenge not easily met.  If hemp is to be one of the alternatives through which farmers get better prices, the Austrian and EU policy makers must support the hemp movement, especially through the establishment of different processing facilities.  If hemp is also to be one of the sustainable alternatives to conventional agriculture it must be produced and processed in an ecologically sound way.


Mailing address: Professur Oekologischer Landbau, Universitaet fuer Bodenkultur, Gregor Mendel Strasse 33, A-1180 Wien / Vienna, Austria; Fax (must carry mailing address!): (++43-1) - 3105175 E-mail vogl@edv1.boku.ac.at)