New Zealand: Third Generation Dairy Farmers Turn To Hemp

Photo Credit: FAIRFAX NZ

Forget about white gold and our massive dairy industry, green gold could be the new king of the crop.

As the hemp industry opens up in New Zealand, a Rangitikei family is giving hemp a shot as they try get off the herd and diversify their dairy farm in hemp and pumpkin for the first year.

The Welch family have farmed the same land for more than 90 years over three generations.

However, for this family there’s many sides to the dairy industry with ethical challenges.

“It’s just the mass industrialization of it, it doesn’t always sit right,” Tom Welch said.

This quandary has lead Welch down a different path and away from dairying, into the budding world of farming hemp, where he and his family have planted 4ha.

“Dairying was challenging in the wrong ways, the bureaucracy – and I know that sounds funny when you’re looking at the bureaucracy that we’re standing in. But look at this –
we’re doing it,” Welch said.

“A year ago, I wouldn’t have known a thing about hemp. I would have never even thought of growing it.

“We were looking around at the things we could grow and we said let’s have a go at hemp,” Welch said.

For much of the 20th century, hemp has been associated with the illegal strand of cannabis, which contains the psychoactive drug THC.

But more recently, regulations have eased – although hemp plantations must still not be visible from the road.

“Anyone can grow hemp so long as the Ministry of Health is happy that you qualify for a license, and you’re not going to be an issue drug-wise,” Welch said.

“The reality is there’s nothing wrong with the leaf, there’s no reason why anyone couldn’t own it or have it. What is it going to do? It’s not a drug.”

Welch said some of the remaining restrictions on hemp production needed to be revisited.

“We’re not even allowed to use the leaf as advertising on our products,” he said.

“The laws need changing and, while we’ve got this current government, they might need to step up to the plate and broaden everyone’s thinking,” Welch said.

Hemp was one of humanity’s earliest crops and considered a ‘superfood’ with more omega 3 than tuna, more protein and iron than steak and more fiber than oats.

It could also be used to produce a range of products such as textiles, building material, food and personal hygiene products.

“I think we are only scratching the surface with what we can do with hemp and, in fact, what we are forced to do with hemp in the future – for example fuel, building materials, all of it,” Welch said.

Tom’s father Steuart Welch has run dairy cows on the farm all of his life, however he was also open to this new type of farming.

“That has become one of the focuses on our farm: to explore different ways of using the land. So we’re not just in this dairy farming business which can go anywhere at the moment – we supply industrial milk to the world and while it’s profitable, it’s a bit soulless,” Steuart Welch said.

The hemp crop takes around 130 days to ripen from the seeds to harvest and grows more than 2m tall.

“Once we chop the tops off, we’ll catch the seed which is a bit smaller than a pepper corn,” Tom Welch said.

“We will then run the hearts through our oil press and press out a beautiful hemp oil.”

The family have built pressing and cellar rooms and, once the seed press arrives from China, hoped to pump out 600 liters of hemp oil and 1 ton of hemp flour from the by-product.

The oil could be used in various foods from smoothies to salad dressings to a dietary supplement.

Currently, hemp oil retailed for around $80 per liter at health food shops, and it would be a growing business for the family along with pumpkin seeds and the traditional dairy.

“The pumpkin seed is a good fit to the rest of the farm and can be grown close to the road, anywhere that can be seen. And it’s a really great food out there.

“I’m hoping to get a ton of seed out of the hectare,” Tom Welch said. “This is new to us so I could be way off, but you’ve got to have a go at these things.

“You can’t be a spectator in life, you’ve got to give things a go – I think my dad might have said that.”

Steuart Welch said the consumer would ultimately be the judge for the hemp industry boom.

“Our belief is that the future is in the public and people wanting to know where their food comes from and we’re very happy to be part of that story,” Steuart Welch said.