Businesses and farmers see a bright future for the hemp industry in WA following recent legislative changes, but the fledging sector needs support.
Early investment in production and processing facilities is critical to the growth of hemp businesses in Western Australia, according to proponents of the versatile plant.
Margaret River Hemp Company owner Georgina Wilkinson said federal legalisation passed last November classifying hemp as a food product had sparked awareness about hemp’s versatility and potential.
“With the food legislation introduced last year, it’s opened up a huge market Australia wide for anyone who wants to get into the food industry,” Ms Wilkinson told Business News.
Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant that, unlike marijuana, contains low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Historically used to manufacture rope, paper, clothing and other textiles, hemp’s qualities as a food are equally attractive due to its high levels of protein, fibre and omega fatty acids.
Ms Wilkinson said her business had been on the main street of Margaret River selling clothes for 22 years, and more recently began selling skincare products, but its future priority would be hemp food.
It now sells hemp protein powder, flour, chocolate, seed oil, and roasted seeds, and has partnered with Margaret River Distilling Company to produce hemp gin.
Ms Wilkinson and her husband and business partner Gary Rogers, who also builds houses from hemp, planted their first hemp crop last year.
“There are a lot of small farms coming up. As small farmers ourselves, we’ll have to be unique in what we do because there are a lot of big farms over east,” Ms Wilkinson said.
She said there were 43 licensed growers in the state, with about 70 hectares of hemp planted last year in WA compared with 700ha in Tasmania.
“WA is a little bit behind because it has no machinery for the processing side of food,” Ms Wilkinson said.
She said it was a catch-22 situation at the moment because farmers wouldn’t grow more crops until machinery was present, but businesses were reluctant to invest in the machinery without adequate hemp seed supply.
“It only got passed in November so it’s still a fledgling industry, but it will happen,” Ms Wilkinson said.
She pointed to the US and Canada as indications of hemp’s potential, with the Hemp Business Journal estimating consumer sales of hemp products in 2016 was $US688 million, and expected to grow to $1.8 billion by 2020.
Agricultural scientist Bronwyn Blake, who owns hemp business Vasse Valley and is the WA Hemp Co-operative chairman, has been growing hemp for three years in anticipation that Australia would follow other countries and legalise hemp foods.
Vasse Valley has since partnered with Busselton-based Rocky Ridge Brewing to produce a hemp beer, and is working on collaborations with other food and beverage businesses to produce hemp chocolate, kombucha, and health bars.
“The major problem at this stage is we don’t have the local supply, so there’s no choice but to import from overseas or interstate, but that’s how all industries start,” Dr Blake said.
“There’s a lot of small producers especially that are really interested in growing hemp, because it can be grown on a small scale profitably if you’re going to value-add.”
Vasse Valley currently grinds hemp seed into a paste, but Dr Blake said people in the industry were looking with interest at investing in dehulling machines.
“We need to work together in order to share information and create investment opportunities, so I’m hoping the co-op is going to be a strong driving force for that and to attract government funding,” she said.
Another opportunity that may alleviate some pressure for growers is the state government’s proposal to increase the entire plant’s THC limits from 0.35 per cent to 1 per cent.
Regardless, the seed, which is used to produce hemp food, would contain no THC.
Dr Blake’s husband and business partner, Chris Blake, said because hemp varieties available in WA were not bred to grow here, the stress often made them naturally increase THC levels.
“Producers put a lot of time, effort and money into every crop, so to be told you can’t use it either for food or to sow the following season is really disheartening,” he said.
“This (change) greatly lowers the risk of all hemp growers and makes it a much more attractive crop to plant.”
Local business Refresh Juice is another business to be affected by the availability of hemp in WA, having recently launched a hemp milk product.
It currently sources its hemp seeds from the US.
Sole director Liam O’Neil said that, in the space of a week, its hemp milk went from being supplied at three stockists to 38 and is now featured in many supermarkets, retailing at about $13 for 250 millilitres.
“It’s obviously an expensive product to start off with and it’s expensive being first to market, but when Australia starts producing en masse and we can get a local product, it will hopefully be cheaper because of scales of economy,” Mr O’Neil said.
“But now we’re sourcing the best product from the states and we’re paying top price, which is why our customers are paying top price.”
Mr O’Neil said Refresh Juice was the first to sell hemp milk wholesale in Australia, and it intended to expand nationwide as soon as possible.
He said it would be launching a pop-up in Melbourne in the coming weeks to test the interstate market.