Monday, 15 February 2021

Hemp: The superfood solution


Superfood hemp ticks all the boxes for Ravensdown shareholders Ngāti Kahungunu ki Tāmaki nui-a-Rua, based out of Dannevirke. Its vision is to create jobs, care for the environment and provide healthy foods for the whānau (family).

Known for its smooth, nutty taste, hemp has many special nutritional qualities. Collaborating with farmer growers over the last three years to research and trial hemp, the iwi of one of six Ngāti Kahungunu regions has already established its company Pure Heart Aotearoa.

Iwi Chairperson Hayden Hape says the company’s goal is to grow, process and market its own hemp products here in New Zealand, with big plans to expand its offering.

Globally hemp is not new, but as a fledgling industry in New Zealand the iwi has been somewhat limited by the lack of technology available.

It hopes to change this after signing an exclusive agreement with Chinese company Qiaopai Biotech, a world leader in hemp. The iwi plans to build a state-of-the-art processing facility in the Tararua region, which will give it control of the entire value chain, as well as injecting much-needed jobs into the area.

A business plan has been formulated and the iwi is seeking investment and funding to help build the facility, though Covid-19 and the election put the brakes on its Primary Growth Fund application.

Hemp the superfood

A complete plant protein, hemp contains all of the essential amino acids required by the human body, as well as the fatty acids Omega 3 and Omega 6. Benefits include boosting the health of hair, skin, the immune system and heart function.

Hemp seeds contain naturally high levels of Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). GLA has been linked to assisting with hormonal balance, reducing symptoms of PMS and menopause.

With the growing consumer desire for food products that deliver excellent health and wellbeing outcomes, the iwi is poised to capitalise on this latest trend.

Marketing Manager Adam Webster says the possibilities with hemp and its applications in cooking are endless. Add it to your smoothie, sprinkle on a salad, add it to your baking or simply take it on a spoon for a health boost.

He explains that the hemp seed is all nutritional value and has no cannabinoids (the compounds found in cannabis). This means it has no medicinal value from a CBD (cannabidiol) perspective and no THC – the compound that gets you ‘high’.

Although hemp oil is not known for its use as a cooking oil, the new technology the iwi plans to bring to New Zealand would provide a method to de-hull the hemp seeds. Oil made from the de-hulled seeds would have a higher smoke point.

Pure Heart Aotearoa products already on the market include hemp oil, hemp heart and hemp heart protein powder. The company has now partnered with Massey University to develop new products and Hayden is excited about a soon-to-bereleased product.

During lockdown, the iwi opened a bakery and experimented with hemp bread recipes, making about 600 loaves every three days and giving it away to the community.

Globally hemp fibre has been used to make everything from sanitary products to panels in planes and BMW cars. The iwi is exploring creating products from hemp fibre and, long term, there’s the potential to export products too.

Why hemp?

It was an ill-fated fishing trip to Akitio beach that first planted the hemp seed in Hayden’s mind, figuratively speaking. “We went to go fishing, but it was too rough. We were sitting on the beach looking out to sea, all disappointed. Then this guy, James Harold, comes walking down the beach with his baby and starts telling us about how he’s growing hemp.”

Further investigation showed that as well as the health and wellbeing benefits of hemp, it has positive environmental outcomes as a crop.

“The hemp plant ticks all the boxes in terms of what the iwi is looking for. We started researching hemp four years ago and it’s a super plant, just amazing,” Hayden says.

Hemp produces a long tap root, aerating the soil and mitigating compaction. Once the crop is harvested, it also adds to the organic matter of the soil.

“We’ve really got to look after the farmers too and there are soil benefits. Hemp lifts heavy metals and contaminants out of the soil too, nitrogen leaching is a big one.”

Another plus is the fact hemp is a carbon sink, with research from the United States showing hemp absorbs four times more carbon than a pine forest, while the crop grows in just 90-100 days.

The Tararua region is one of those experiencing a move from productive farmland to pine trees and has witnessed large scale job losses with the closure of big employers including the Oringi Freezing Works and NZ Wool Spinners. Hayden hopes the hemp venture, particularly once the processing facility is up and running, can help provide jobs for the local community.

Currently the iwi does not have land of its own to grow hemp and has relied on collaborating with farmer growers who are experienced in cropping.

“There are farmers with many years of cropping experience and they’re the ones we want to tap into, so we have the formula to grow it and can provide the support,” Hayden says.

Ultimately, he hopes their families and iwi members can come on board with growing hemp too. “We’re not in the business of burning people. We want to make sure that when farmers grow on a large scale, we have the ability to harvest and process the crops and ensure it’s a win-win for everyone.”

For Hayden, it’s an exciting time to be leading the region, being at the forefront of a relatively young niche industry. With the global shift towards plant-based foods, they are keeping pace with the times. And the potential for multiple income streams from hemp – seed, fibre and carbon – makes it an even more attractive proposition.

The art of growing hemp

Like many crops, the secret to a top hemp crop is in good management and perfect timing.

Quintin Swanepoel, who has a degree in horticulture and has published a paper on the agronomy of growing hemp, worked full time for the iwi for two years on the hemp project.

He says it’s a common misconception that hemp doesn’t have high nutritional requirements.

In fact, it’s a hungry crop that has similar requirements to those of a maize crop.

Quintin always undertakes a soil test before growing the crop, but a basic guide is 150kg nitrogen/ha, 80kg phosphorus/ha, 60-80kg potassium/ha and 20-40kg sulphur/ha.

“It does need a lot. If we are looking at the start of its life and the soil is low in nitrogen, we would sow the nitrogen with the seed or spread it when planting. We would add phosphorus as a side dressing later in its development because the phosphorus is used in the flower head.”

Quintin’s research and practical trials tell him the optimum planting density and row spacing to achieve the highest yield of seed and fibre biomass is 40 plants per square metre and 15cm row spacing.

Hemp likes a nice fine seed bed to ensure good germination, and irrigation to get the crop started and throughout its life. Expectations for a non-irrigated crop would be no more than one tonne per hectare, while irrigated crops can expect yields of two to three tonnes per hectare.

There can be too much of a good thing though, and it’s important to ensure the crop doesn’t get too much water either.

“It doesn’t like wet feet because it is susceptible to damping off – a soil fungal disease that causes the base of the stem to rot,” Quintin says.

A huge threat to the health of the hemp crop is damage from birds, particularly pukeko, as well as rabbits, which will happily rip seedlings out of the ground.

The minute the crop ripens it’s at risk of any bird eating the seed. Birds can wreak havoc and devastate a crop quickly. Methods for dealing with this pest include the tried and true shooting, bird bangers, scarecrows, hawk kites and netting.

“You need to prepare for it and have a plan in place. By the time they’re eating it, it’s too late,” Quintin says.

Another pest is the white cabbage butterfly, which lays eggs on the seed head. When they hatch and dig into the seed head, they can potentially open up a wound for infection and fungal disease in the flower head. Control can be complicated, as you need to be aware of residue from insecticide on the flower head. Quintin’s preferred method has been biological control, particularly a parasitic wasp.

While hemp can be quite tolerant of pest and disease, it can also be ravaged very quickly if correct management strategies are not in place.

Crops are planted in October, when the soil temperature is warm enough, the threat of frost is gone and it has enough time to grow before the days start to get shorter, triggering flowering.

“Timing is very important as it’s a photo-sensitive plant.” Hemp seed is green, but as it matures it turns brown.

“The moment it starts to turn brown it’s ripe and the birds will start coming,” Quintin says. “Ideally you wait until 80% of it is brown before harvesting. Hemp has a tendency to shatter with strong wind or being knocked, the seeds will start to drop off the plant at 100%, so that’s why we start harvesting before that.”

Harvesting can be tricky for a typical combine harvester, which runs with chains, as the hemp fibres tend to wrap around the chains, causing blockages. “I’ve seen chains replaced with belts and panels put in place to prevent stems getting into the working gears.”

It’s also important to note that seed needs to be dried as soon as it’s harvested. It’s no good leaving it to sit, as it will rot quickly and degrade. Having a dryer ready to go before harvesting is a good idea. Finally, Quintin advises that farmers need a licence to grow hemp, which can take six months to be granted.