Hemp has qualities to be the ideal crop for Irish conditions
Hemp is a promising crop, well suited to the growing conditions in Ireland, according to a farmer from Kells. Sean Gilsenan is the agronomy director with Norgen Ltd and said that 'when harvesting is complete and assessed, we will be able to evaluate the crops" potential fully'. The trial follows an agreement for Ireland between the Green Energy Growers Association (GEGA) and National Federation of Producers of Hemp in France (FNPC), enabling the former, through its Gesco Network, to provide farmers and growers here with access to a range of industrial hemp varieties and technologies. Sean McCaffrey from Kilskyre is the other farmer involved, and FNPC representatives have visited the field trials with the GESCO Agronomy Group to assess progress of the crops sown this year. The Gesco Network is essentially a country wide network of green energy service companies whose main aim is to develop opportunities for rural communities in the green energy market, and to ensure they continue to benefit long term from energy production. Hemp is a remarkable plant and more than 25,000 products are made or manufactured from raw materials derived from the plant - fibre, hurds and hemp seed/ grain. Industrial hemp is an environmentally friendly crop that produces environmentally friendly products. In the four months it takes for it to mature it can produce nearly four times as much raw fibre as a 20-year-old, equivalent-sized tree plantation and requires no pesticides or herbicides. Traditionally in Europe hemp has been produced for fibre and seed but, when left to mature naturally, produces woody material and has the ability to produce 17-20 tonnes of biomass per hectare. The raw material is suited as an ingredient for blended pellets and from experience to date, the crop is expected to grow well in Irish conditions. The crop requires good management at sowing time and responds well to fertiliser application, especially nitrogen, because it produces such a large bulk of material, but once established it grows without any further inputs. The crop returns three to four tons per hectare of biomass to the soil when shedding its leaves before harvest - a significant contribution to soil organic matter content and residual nutrient. The biggest benefit of industrial hemp as a break crop is the ability of the plant roots to aerate the soil and to allow following crops to be more efficient at nutrient uptake. This makes it an excellent break crop option in intensive tillage rotations. Because the mature plant produces a dense, woody and fibrous crop, it requires specially adapted mowing, harvesting and baling equipment but this methodology is compatible with miscanthus production. Industrial hemp is genetically related to cannabis and its cultivation of industrial hemp is regulated by the Irish Medicines Board under the misuse of drugs act - there is also some input to the licensing scheme from other government departments. Under licence, growers can plant from a pre-approved list of varieties with no psycho-active properties. Indications are that it is expected to be able to compete with most arable crops and other farm production systems in terms of net return to the grower. The main advantages are that, once established, it requires no inputs until harvesting and provides an opportunity for a short term crop without the commitment required with other biomass crops.