A hemp growing experiment on a farm overlooking Tralee Bay in Kerry 56 years ago is now being recalled as a result of a growing focus on the suitability of the crop as an alternative agricultural enterprise.
The trial, which was conducted on a half-acre plot on the land of John Dillon at The Kerries, was sponsored by Kerry County Committee of Agriculture with the co-operation of what was then the Agricultural Institute, and is now Teagasc.
More than 10kg of hemp seeds were sown in April 1963 to see if the soil, which was normally used for growing wheat and barley, would be suitable for hemp. Agricultural instructors monitored the test during the spring and summer with advice from the Agricultural Institute which had been studying hemp growing for a number of years.
Under the guidance of John Dillon and his son, Garry, the crop exceeded the expectations and grew to over 2.5m tall. The roadside plot of bamboo-like canes presented a unique sight to many passers-by who were naturally puzzled.
When the hemp canes were finally cut for harvesting in September, it was discovered that they were almost impossible to break with the hand — such was the strength of the fibrous substance.
While the County Committee of Agriculture said the crop was very satisfactory, it stressed that one test was not sufficient to indicate that the soil generally was suitable for hemp growing. Further experiments were required.
The trial caused a lot of pubic interest at a time when the price of rope and twine and various other commodities produced from hemp fibre was on the increase. There were even hopes that a factory for making these products could be erected in Tralee, which was badly in need of industry at the time.
Nothing came of those hopes, but the idea of developing hemp growing did not go away and is now a subject of much debate. Experts note that barriers to hemp are coming down rapidly and that Ireland is well positioned to capitalise on this and create its own global brands.
Hemp is currently produced in Ireland for use in a number of different goods, but there are restrictions on the growth of the plant. Agriculture, Food, and Marine Minister Michael Creed was recently asked in the Dáil by Solidarilty-People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett to outline his views on the possible development of hemp cultivation as a significant agricultural activity.
He replied that hemp fibre and seed are viewed as versatile products, used to produce a wide range of commodities including food and beverage products, medicines and a range of
“Hemp grown for fibre production is frequently referred to as ‘industrial’ hemp, in order to differentiate it from the plants used for drug production,” said Mr Creed. “Industrial hemp has been selectively bred for several decades in order to lower to almost negligible amounts the narcotic compound THC [Tetrahydrocannabinol].
“In the European Union, the cultivation of hemp is restricted to varieties having a content of THC lower than 0.2 %. Varieties of non-psychoactive hemp are also grown for seed production.
“The seeds have mainly been used for bird feed, but increasingly are used to produce hemp oil and as a cooking ingredient.”
Mr Creed said the growing of hemp of any category requires a licence from the Health Products Regulatory Authority. Noting that hemp has been the subject of research by Teagasc, he said the findings have noted that yields can vary between seasons but that the crop is responsive to low level inputs.
However, he said it was important to point out that, subject to the licensing requirements, potential growers or processors wishing to cultivate hemp commercially should be satisfied that such an activity is economically viable.
“Any assessment would usefully include an analysis of the costs of establishing hemp processing facilities on a sound, commercial footing without recourse to State funding,” he said.
Last month’s Premier Irish Industrial Hemp conference at Teagasc Ashtown heard that one acre of industrial hemp absorbs an average of 8.9 tonnes of CO2.
Organised by the Hemp Working Group, Teagasc and the Irish Farmers Association, those present were told about a huge interest from farmers and industry.
Barry Caslin of Teagasc said many farmers are seeking land use alternatives, especially in light of the lack of income from the drystock sector which was highlighted in the recent national farm survey report. He said:
Wicklow farmer Ed Hanbidge, who has farmed organically since 2015, has integrated hemp into his family farm in Baltinglass. He called for the introduction of the organic payment for hemp crops and the provision of infrastructural supports to develop the industry, either through TAMS initiatives, or Enterprise Ireland funding.
Laura Jane Foley, Loop Head, Co Clare, who grows hemp on her farm, is offering contracts to farmers to grow the crop which they are processing. She urged the Government to establish a regulatory framework and encourage research and innovation at agricultural, academic and pharmaceutical levels.
“Please acknowledge the need for a full-Irish supply chain to address the growing domestic and international consumer demand to establish Ireland as a global supplier,” she said.
James De Melloe from Glasson, Athlone, are also offering contracts to farmers to grow hemp to be processed at their newly acquired laboratory at Monksland into CBD oil.
“Ireland is a gateway to Europe, has globally competitive tax rates and research incentives and a highly educated workforce,” said Mr De Melloe.
“This country can compete at an international level and is uniquely positioned to capture a significant portion of the global marketplace,” he said.