Growth of Hemp Farming in Australia: A Sustainable Future

Hemp Farming in Australia

Farming hemp for industrial purposes in Australia has grown immensely across the agricultural sector. But this has only been a very recent development. It wasn’t always the case. Recent shifts in demand for hemp products and regulatory treatment of its cultivation have made it more attractive for Australian farms to cultivate hemp as a crop.

Woman cultivating industrial hemp in Australia

In addition, more farmers are recognising the value of industrial hemp from an environmental standpoint. This crop’s resilience makes it well-suited to the harsh Australian climate. Hemp needs little water, pesticide treatment, or upkeep to grow well.

Hemp plant growing

It’s highly sustainable and versatile for a vast range of commercial purposes. These factors have drawn more farmers to hemp as their primary crop, supporting Australia’s burgeoning CBD and hemp product market. Let’s review the advantages of industrial hemp farming and why it has become the poster child for sustainable agriculture in Australia. We’ll also explore why hemp has become more adopted over time due to regulatory, economic, and demand changes.

Australian Hemp Farming Regulations

Scientist holding industrial hemp plant

The regulation of hemp farming in Australia has historically been restrictive. Similarly to countries like the United States, hemp was illegal to grow even for industrial purposes until very recently. This all changed in 2016. The Australian government updated the Narcotic Drugs Act, which rescheduled hemp cultivation. Farming was still controlled but was opened for specific medical, commercial, and food applications.

Sheep on a hemp farm

This was a significant legislative change. It reflected a landmark shift in traditional societal stigmas against hemp. Additionally, it indicated the Australian government’s acknowledgment that hemp farming represented an immense, untapped economic opportunity. But importantly, it still allowed for the control of psychoactive marijuana strains, which remained illegal under regulation except for medical purposes. The government made clear distinctions to separate industrial hemp from its more maligned relative, marijuana. Unlike marijuana, hemp contains no THC, which is reinforced in the legislation.

Hemp leaf and seeds

Considering hemp had been illegal for the prior 80 years up to 2017, this was a substantial milestone in the Australian regulatory landscape of hemp farming. The USA legalised industrial hemp farming in 2018 with the Hemp Farming Act. However, in both instances, these countries were laggards in legalisation from a regulatory standpoint. For example, Britain legalised agricultural hemp varieties in 1993, and the Netherlands in 1999.

Commercial hemp farming

Hemp becoming legal for farming businesses restored a lost agricultural crop and opened new avenues for economic growth and sustainability. It’s even opened the door for the Australian legalisation of CBD oil and similar products. Places like Australia are particularly drought-prone. There is a significant shortage of arable land that can maintain plant life and viable crop farming at large scales. These climate and environmental challenges underscore the need for farmers to explore new, resilient crops like hemp with low water requirements.

What is Industrial Hemp?

Industrial hemp plant in Australia

Legislation in Australia distinguishes hemp grown for ‘industrial’ or commercial purposes. These varieties of cannabis are bred to have close to 0% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is enforced by regulation. THC poses mental health risks for many people if consumed. It’s also addictive and carries much higher health harm potential. Due to this, the government restricts the availability of hemp plants containing THC (marijuana). Only medical cannabis producers can grow hemp containing THC.

The legal definition of industrial hemp varies across different Australian states to some degree. For instance, New South Wales and Victoria have a THC limit of 0.3% for industrial hemp, while states like Tasmania have a higher limit of 1%. What doesn’t vary between states is the requirement that industrial hemp contain only trace amounts of THC. This particularly applies to the plant’s leaves and flowers, where cannabinoids like THC are naturally produced. In contrast, cannabis stems and seeds have no cannabinoid content.

The purpose of industrial hemp is distinct. It’s harvested for the plant’s fibres, seeds, leaves, and stems, each with various commercial uses, like creating hempcrete in construction (combining hemp fibres into concrete mixtures) or producing hemp bags, clothes, or rope.

How is Hemp Farmed in Australia?

Hemp germination

In Australia, industrial hemp can only be grown by licensed, government-approved farm operators. Licenses for hemp farming are stringently controlled to prevent malpractice and farms producing illegal varieties of cannabis.

Seed Preparation

Hemp seed selection

The first step hemp farmers take when beginning their industrial hemp crops is selecting strains and choosing the right seeds. Different strains of industrial hemp have varying characteristics and advantages. Because of their robust stem structures, some are more optimal in producing high fibre yields. Others may be more resistant to pests, tolerate poorer soil qualities or have a better capacity to endure droughts. An important consideration for most farmers is their geography and climate in Australia.

Northern climes in the country alternate between very wet and scorching hot periods. In contrast, Southern states can be both dry and cold during winter. Frost damage is possible and can destroy entire crops. These extreme climate variations and environmental factors are substantial concerns for farmers who must protect their plants.

Planting

Planting hemp in soil

Climate factors substantially influence the timings of hemp planting in different farming regions. In Northern Australia, hemp seeds are placed into soils in the middle of the wet season, beginning in January. For Southern latitude farms, hemp is planted in Spring (around October). Each timing is intended to defend hemp crops from heat extremes or frost. Maximising growth periods around warmer, milder periods is also ideal for optimised growth.

Today, the process of preparing (tilling) soils for the sowing of seeds is primarily automated. Heavy agricultural diggers are used to churn the soil to aerate it. Mixing up the topsoil with underlying soil layers also helps to enrich and rejuvenate the earth before seed sowing. Soil is bioactive and alive. Like crops, it requires maintenance and care to keep healthy. Once churned, machines are then employed to dig troughs of equal spacing and depth.

Hemp seeds are sown in these troughs. Specialised planting machines work across the land, pushing hemp seeds into the freshly carved soil troughs. Each seed is pressed into the earth about three centimetres deep. Because the soil was churned, it’s already primed to take in the seed and provide nutrients needed for germination. Hemp plants are sown at reasonably wide intervals of a metre, giving space to grow due to their size. This spacing also aids in preventing the growth of weeds, mould, fungi or pests. Ample space is additionally required for the tall, broad hemp stalks to branch out into the sky.

Irrigation and Cultivation

Hemp being cultivated

All plants need water to survive and thrive. This includes hemp. Farmers irrigate hemp farming operations, and even with the plant’s drought-resistant characteristics, irrigation watering is a significant part of the process. Watering hydrates each plant from germination to full maturity. Well-irrigated hemp grows incredibly fast and produces better-quality stalks. It’s vital that watering is controlled to prevent too much or too little water being given to plants.

Alongside watering, cultivation and care are needed to prevent weeds, fungus, bacteria, or pests from harming the hemp crop. Weed management helps prevent invasive plants from stealing nutrients or sunlight from hemp. Hemp’s strength and dense branch structure naturally inhibit most weed growth, but weed killing is always required to help young hemp plants get a start. 

Similarly, pests or diseases can damage or kill plants and need warding off. Most farmers will use chemical and physical pest management techniques to prevent these detrimental outcomes. Depending on whether the farm is organic, this could include pesticides or fungicides. Organic farms will use natural compounds to keep away pests. Farmers are continuously monitoring their crops carefully. Most use drones or advanced camera technologies to help them with this, keeping an ever-watchful eye over their prized plants.

Harvesting

Processing hemp seeds

Once hemp has grown to full maturity, it needs to be harvested and processed for use. The harvesting times vary depending on what the hemp will be used for. Plants grown for fibre don’t need to reach full maturity to be harvested. Hemp stems (containing fibres) are primarily developed by the three-month mark. Some farmers harvest them earlier to begin a new crop, improving overall yield each season.

Extra growing time is required if hemp seeds are desired. Hemp plants don’t produce seeds until nearly four months post-germination. They’re often wanted for hemp food products, hemp oil or hemp balm. Each seed is very dense with nutrients, fats, vitamins and minerals. Whether the hemp is grown for stems or seeds influences its harvesting method substantially. Seeds are more finicky for farmers to strip off plants, meaning specialist seed stripping machines are needed. In contrast, machines used for stem harvesting will segment the plants evenly and remove all leaves. 

Once harvested, stems can decompose outdoors for a brief, controlled period. This process loosens the fibres within the stalk body, making it far easier to remove the softer, valuable fibres from the hard hemp stem.

Industrial Hemp Benefits for Australian Farmers

Indoor hemp farm Australia

Since its legalisation in the Australian agricultural industry, hemp’s popularity as a crop has soared. Multiple related factors have made it one of the standout modern crops in the Australian environment. 

Sustainability

Sustainable industrial hemp farming

Its environmental sustainability is crucial to hemp’s favourability amongst Australian farmers. As a plant, hemp is very resource-efficient. It has minor water, nutrient or soil requirements. Most hemp varieties can also tolerate harsher soils than other crops. This is immensely valuable in places like Australia, where average soil quality in most states is poor. Because it’s so hardy, hemp doesn’t need as many pesticides or chemicals to grow and keep healthy. Its resistance to drought, heat, pests and diseases allows more farmers to cultivate the plant organically.r

Moreover, hemp brings nutrients and organic compounds back into surrounding soils, improving topsoil volume and fertility. This makes it an ideal crop for regenerative farming. Hemp can be cycled through different areas of soil to replenish nutrient content. Opting for hemp allows Australian farmers to improve the quality of their soil and balance the health of their farming lands.

Farmers in Australia place immense importance on water management due to the sparseness of available water resources in the country. Droughts and dry spells are common. Selecting crops based on these harsh climate conditions is essential for a farm’s business success. Cash crops like cotton can only be viably cultivated in some Australian regions due to their water requirements. In contrast, hemp can do well where plants like cotton can’t grow. In arid lands like Australia, farmers growing hemp save money on water whilst also protecting their livelihood from drought.

Carbon Footprint

Environmental benefits

Global warming is at the top of many people’s minds today. Consumers are increasingly demanding products sourced through sustainable, carbon-neutral production methods. This applies too to products or materials produced via agriculture. Opting for crop plants like hemp helps farmers reduce their overall CO2 output and obtain carbon neutrality more easily.

Hemp has a minimal carbon footprint compared to most comparable crops. It’s effective at removing atmospheric carbon and sequestering it, which helps to prevent climate change from worsening. This is especially important in Australia, where the government is under pressure from the population to reduce its carbon output. Farmers can play a crucial role in aiding overall greenhouse gas reductions from agriculture.

While lesser known, another environmental advantage of hemp in farming is its capacity to minimise overall agricultural chemical use. Hemp can interrupt disease cycles in crops and reduce the need for destructive chemical insecticides, fungicides or pesticides. Each harmful compound can diffuse into the waterways, water table and nearby environments. Avoiding them by choosing pest-resistant crops is vital. Additionally, hemp grows fast. Rapid growth cycles can block weeds from infesting crop fields by preventing them from obtaining nutrients or sunlight. Over time, farmers can reduce their herbicide use for this reason, keeping weeds away naturally.

Economic Resilience

Hemp textiles

From an economic standpoint, hemp helps farmers reduce their financial risk due to its commercial versatility. The plant is used in multiple industries for different purposes and products. It’s used in the textiles, fashion, construction, health, culinary and even energy sectors. Most of these industries use hemp fibres, for example, in creating bags or clothes. Some even leverage hemp as a source of sustainable biofuels. Australian government subsidies are growing to help support this type of sustainable agricultural output. These economic incentives are attracting more farmers to hemp than ever.

A significant consideration for all farmers when selecting crops is economic risk mitigation. A downturn in a vital industry you’re supplying could spell disaster from a financial standpoint due to bringing demand to a halt. De-risking this type of single supply chain failure is essential for farmers to stay in business. Hemp is ideal for such a purpose. Its ability to be used across various sectors makes it highly diversified and a strong choice in all economic conditions. Furthermore, diversifying with hemp crops is commonplace to mitigate crop loss risks from pests, droughts or environmental changes. 

Crop yield also matters in agricultural businesses. Choosing crops that will grow to maturity fast and have bountiful yields per season is critical. Hemp excels from a yield standpoint. Each plant is substantial and produces large quantities of organic material. Additionally, its growth rate means multiple hemp crops can be delivered per harvest season. Farmers can produce more often with hemp, making more money over time. This has driven increases in the adoption of hemp amongst farms Australia-wide.

Growing Hemp Product Demand

Hemp superfood powder

Australian demand for hemp-derived products like CBD oil has seen meteoric growth in recent years. People are attracted to these products for a range of reasons. Hemp foods, for example, are very high quality, nutrient-dense and vitamin-rich. The plant contains many essential minerals, amino acids, healthy fats and vitamins. These are particularly abundant in its seeds, which are prized for their nutrition and health benefits (for example, in hemp seed oil). Many even use hemp oil as a daily health supplement to take advantage of its immense omega-3 content, healthy fats, protein and nutrients.

In other areas, like household goods or clothing, more consumers are attracted to hemp-based offerings’ sustainability and carbon neutrality. More people now shop specifically for sustainable, plant-based items. Demand for hemp bags, clothing, bedsheets, or sowing fabrics is already very high in Australia. Hemp’s eco-friendliness and strength as a resilient fibre have drawn all types of consumers to it. With this degree of adaptability, industrial hemp has become a highly demanded, profitable cornerstone crop. 

Downsides of Hemp Farming

Australian industrial hemp cultivation

Like all farming endeavours, growing industrial hemp isn’t without risk. Using hemp as a crop does pose some added challenges in certain places for farmers. Because of its size, it can be more complicated than other crops to harvest or process.

High Upfront Costs

Farmer sowing hemp seeds

A significant challenge with hemp farming is the upfront costs it imposes on farmers to set up. Procuring compliant hemp seeds is expensive. These must be government-approved and provided by a licensed hemp cultivator. Often, farmers will invest extra to obtain particular varieties or cultivars of hemp that best fit their local environs. Setting up the land and soil for planting is also a challenge. Hemp planting patterns are specific to this crop. It must be spaced correctly, or it won’t optimally grow to full maturity. 

Harvesting also poses added challenges. Unlike more traditional crop varieties, hemp needs specific equipment to harvest and process. The shape and size of each plant can make it ungainly to handle. Stripping seeds or stalk fibres requires the help of purpose-built machinery. This adds to the capital requirements of hemp farms. Another outlay is the insurance and licensing costs associated with hemp farming in Australia. 

Due to tight regulation and specialised license requirements, farmers encounter additional costs for regulatory compliance. Frequently, these costs are passed onto consumers in the form of higher prices for hemp or CBD products. Plants grown must contain under 0.3% THC to be classified as industrial hemp. Exceeding this can result in fines or licenses being revoked for farmers, which disrupts business. These extra set-up, harvesting, and licensing costs are only tenable for some farmers. Many will choose to opt for cheaper, easier crops to grow for this reason despite hemp’s attractiveness.

Immature Australian Industry

Mature hemp plant

While farms have existed in Australia since it was colonised, those producing hemp are a very recent phenomenon. Because hemp was legalised for farming in the last five years, much of the infrastructure, logistics and supporting industries in Australia still need to catch up. For example, importing and exporting hemp in Australia is currently inefficient, costly and complex. Beyond the licenses and regulatory checks needed, moving hemp around the country takes a lot of work for farmers. Most agricultural logistics chains rarely support the plant’s specialised transport and logistics requirements. Where they are, transport comes at a premium.

Because the industry in Australia is nascent, inefficiencies exist everywhere. This can affect hemp farm viability for farmers. Most can’t look at global markets, for instance, as a way to diversify their demand. Shipping hemp overseas from Australia is generally too costly. It’s more commonly imported. Australian shipping tariffs and distances from the remainder of the world make it hard to justify these expenses, particularly when overseas buyers have access to alternative markets such as the US. As more farmers start-up in the hemp industry, profits are increasingly being suppressed. Added competition internationally and in Australia means farmers must all compete harder for less.

Australian Environment

Organic hemp farming Australia

Despite their robustness, hemp plants still require in-depth care and focus to cultivate effectively. In Australia, farming conditions can be harsh. Many farmers are new to hemp, and most don’t have experience growing the crop in Australia’s unique conditions. This combination of factors creates added risk. Getting good yields and maintaining output each season requires resoluteness, persistence, and ongoing optimisation. Farmers must be adaptable and willing to pivot fast where climate conditions shift.

Even though hemp can survive droughts better than most crops, it is not drought-proof. Australian hemp farmers must still plan for drought scenarios and have well-designed irrigation systems to manage plant hydration. Failing this will mean complete crop die-offs or potential business collapse. Water management, conservation and drought planning are all necessities.

The same can be said of pests, weeds, diseases and fungi that can each damage or destroy entire fields of crops. While strong against each, hemp isn’t immune from harm. It’s still a plant that needs care to grow. Diseases like hemp canker, root rot or leaf spot can each infect hemp plants. These eat away at the plant’s structure and cells, causing it to decay.

Powdery mildew is a common fungus that grows on hemp and can sap its growth. It robs plants of their nutrients and vitality. Preventing infections, diseases, damage, and decay from environmental pathogens is a significant task for all hemp-growing farmers. Multi-pronged approaches are necessary to mitigate risk at each stage of the plant’s lifecycle. Meticulous pest planning, preventative measures, monitoring, and management are each required. The cost of reduced yields or widescale hemp crop death is far greater than early prevention.

Conclusion

The legalisation of industrial hemp agriculture has birthed a whole new sector for Australian farmers. It’s opened new avenues for crop diversification, revenue generation, innovation and economic prosperity. While the industry is still nascent in Australia, its growth potential is vast. This potential is driven by the powerful commercialisation capacity of hemp as a crop. It can be applied in many areas for both consumers and businesses. Hemp-derived products range from CBD oil to hemp powders, balms, clothes, ropes, textiles and even concrete mixtures. 

Its environmental friendliness and sustainability are significant drawcards for consumers increasingly conscious of their impact on the earth. Similarly, businesses gravitate towards this crop due to its resource efficiency, sustainability, growth capacity and toughness. In Australia, regulations regarding hemp farming are still stringent. Before diving into this sector, licenses, approvals, audits, and compliance must be obtained. Yet more farm operators now view this as a small price for a slice of Australia’s new, rapidly growing economic pie. The importance of industrial hemp to farmers and industry in Australia can’t be underestimated. It will only see more growth, opportunity and maturity with time.

References

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