Hemp: the farming of the future

Klara Marosszeky is pioneering the industrial hemp industry.
Klara Marosszeky is pioneering the industrial hemp industry.

Klara Marosszeky has a vision for the future that involves revamping of the local farming industry to produce industrial hemp crops. Working with farmers, she has just harvested her first commercial crop of industrial hemp and is looking for innovators who want to utilise the product.

Industrial hemp has a low-THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) content and produces the longest, strongest plant fibres in the world. It is used in many countries in the manufacture of plastics, fiberglass, fabrics, food and building materials.

“In the UK, a major car manufacturer, Lotus, is making whole cars out of hemp,” Klara said. “Everything but the engine is hemp. Henry Ford would be grinning in his grave.”

Klara currently teaches sustainability courses at TAFE and envisions hemp as the solution to many of the sustainability issues that are affecting Australia today. Not only is she trying to create a hemp industry in NSW and open the way to using hemp seed as a food product, but she is out to make housing materials affordable. After looking around for alternative products to replace our current dependence on timber, Klara spent years experimenting with hemp masonry as a building material, with very successful results. Two years ago, she was a finalist for the Northern Rivers Regional Development Board’s innovation award for her hemp masonry.

“When I was first researching hemp, I found an article that said ancient hemp masonry from 750 AD was found in southern France,” Klara said. “The use of hemp in building has been around for a very long time.”

In 1999, after applying for a special licence to grow hemp under the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act, she began growing experimental trial crops in the Hunter Valley. She then conducted experiments with the hemp stems at the University of NSW, using both the whole and separated stems as building materials.

“I now work with the whole hemp stem,” Klara said. “It’s expensive to separate the inside fibre or ‘hurd’ from the stronger outside fibre or ‘bast’.”

One of her first building projects with hemp masonry was retro-fitting a wall on her own house at Corndale. The process involved building a wooden framework with spacings between, then laying wooden planks 60cm high on the inside and outside of the wall to shape the mix. This shape was then in-filled with a mixture of chopped-up hemp and a lime-based binder to create a concrete-like structure. Once the mix was dry, the planks were moved up and more mix was poured in, building the wall higher every day.

Hemp masonry is a more sustainable, organic material than concrete and ‘breathes’ much like a wooden structure. This means that allergy-causing moulds won’t form on it, creating a healthy environment in which to live.

“Building with hemp masonry is an example of cradle to cradle technology,” Klara said. “If you decide to change your house, you can break up the hemp masonry and re-combine it to build a new wall.

“Using hemp masonry to build also means you are using a low embodied energy product because you don’t have to fire them like bricks. You can effectively build a house in four days.”

When Klara began construction with hemp masonry on a house at Billen Cliffs, she got two thirds of the way through the project and ran out of hemp. So, when the NSW Government legislated in 2008 to allow the growing of commercial hemp crops, she began working on creating a hemp industry in NSW.

“I used to work in Landcare, so I had been working with farmers and I recognised very early on that the hemp industry wouldn’t go ahead until farmers could get a good enough return,” Klara said. “The farmers are the backbone of the country but often get the raw end of the deal. They have to get for hemp what they would get for another crop.”

Klara was soon approached by a publican from the inland town of Ashford who had seen some examples of hemp masonry in the Nimbin Hemp Embassy, and he asked her to come to the community and talk to them about industrial hemp.

“They wanted to be the first hemp town in Australia,” Klara said.

While the farming community at Ashford had traditionally been a tobacco growing area, they stopped growing tobacco in 1995 when the tobacco market fell.

“They already had the infrastructure for growing hemp there – the tobacco drying sheds, farmland and equipment were ready to be repurposed,” Klara said. “To have a sustainable industry, you need to be transporting materials as little as possible and look at the existing industry to see if the technology can be adapted.”

Klara spoke to the Ashford Business Council about opening up a ‘fibre line’ down the Great Dividing Range.

“We are working on developing a line across the state, so the hemp industry will unfold down from the top of NSW, with food on this side of the divide and fibre on the other side,” she said.

Klara said that this was because so much soil in the cotton-farming country on the other side of the range has been contaminated with DDT.

“Growers in Ashford are now working toward more sustainable ways of growing without using pesticides,” Klara said. “They are on the Severn River at the top of the Murray and not using chemicals is a good thing for the river systems.”

After a successful harvest of the first crop at Ashford, and with the Northern Rivers Regional Development Board supporting her in opening the industry, Klara is now looking for farmers in northern NSW and west of the divide to get involved in growing industrial hemp crops.

“Growing hemp can have advantages for farmers – it is a sturdy crop that can adapt and survive through dry conditions and freak weather events,” she said. “At Ashford, there was a total of 24 hours of rain in one month and the crop survived. Another crop growing at Tatham survived after there was no rain for five weeks, then it got hit by a hailstorm and then more rain.”

While it is now legal to grow industrial hemp in NSW, it can only be done under a commercial licence and only if there is a buyer for the crop.

“The farmers at Ashford and Tatham grow the crops and I buy the product,” Klara said.

Klara hopes that farmers will soon begin to take out licenses to buy their own crops once they see the viability of the industry.

Cutting the cost of growing industrial hemp is one of Klara’s aims.

“The expense and difficulty of getting seed made us want to start a seed bank of our own,” Klara said. “We have negotiated the price of seed down to $10 from $30 per kilo, but it is still expensive because we plant 45 kilos in a hectare. We want to have farmers grow old land-race varieties of low THC hemp that will breed… to create a seed bank that has two fibre, two food and two dual purpose varieties of seed.”

At the moment Klara has two seed crops growing under her licence, with another two growing under fellow hemp pioneer Keith Bolton’s licence. Up till now, most of the seed she has used is imported from germ plasm banks in countries where America’s worldwide prohibition of hemp was not effective, such as eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and Asian cultures.

“It’s different to growing other food crops because it is a regulated industry,” Klara said. “We need new seed every two years because you get a creep in THC. High THC plants can cross pollinate with low THC plants and we have to get every crop tested for its THC level – it needs to be below 0.05.”

While Australia is just opening up to hemp, overseas, the industrial hemp market is a lucrative industry.

“The hemp industry was among the top 10 fastest growing industries in Canada last year,” Klara said. “And in Europe, bio-remediation is big business, where hemp is used to clean up soils where there are excessive nutrients or heavy metals, such as around copper smelters.”

Klara believes that Australia is being too conservative with its restrictions on the uses of industrial hemp for food.

“Australia is one of only countries left in the world where hemp food is illegal,” Klara said. “In China, military food packs are made out of hemp and America recently changed its legislation to move toward hemp production again. Americans are buying so much hemp-based food – the demand is enormous.

“Despite nutritionists saying hemp seed was the most balanced food for omegas and fatty acids, in 1992 the Australian Federal Police objected to allowing it to be produced in Australia. There is a submission going in front of Food Standards Australia New Zealand in October this year asking for hemp to be allowed as food and the Northern Rivers Hemp Association (NRHA) and farmers are lobbying the government.

“What we need now is a demand for the product,” Klara said.

Hemp can be used for many purposes, from panels to paints, textiles, cosmetics, nutritious edible oils, mulch, weed matting, kitty litter, bedding for animals, oil-spill pillows, surfboards, push-bikes, silks, ropes, structural beams, lighting and fuel. It has the capacity to take up to 13 times its own weight in moisture and is the best biomass in the world. It grows fast, and locks up carbon in the soil because you leave stubble and leaf in the ground.

Klara is calling for any innovators who want to use her industrial hemp product or farmers interested in growing a crop. She can be contacted through the NRHA website at www.northernrivers

“I’d be happy if I received an enormous demand this year that I couldn’t meet,” Klara said. “It would show farmers that the will of the people is behind these industries. We can’t expect leadership to come from government because it responds to what people want. They have given us the instrument by legislating for hemp production – much like how the solar industry was allowed to unfold. The change has to come from people wanting it and creating the demand.”

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