Micheál examines the leaves of his hemp crop. Photo: Sheila Rooney

‘We’re pioneers - we’re at the cutting edge’

Hemp is amazingly versatile, but for a new Cavan enterprise, it is the plant’s health properties which is their main focus. Micheál Ó Lionsaigh takes a handful of the scrubby foliage for me to savour its aroma.

“What you’re smelling is the medicinal quality of the plant,” he says. “And that lies in the leaves, that’s where we extract the oil.”

We’re standing amongst three acres of hemp plants grown at a Stradone farm. Photographer Sheila Rooney had been out to capture the fields in their full blooming colour a few weeks earlier. By the time this reporter arrives, the hemp plants have seen better days. They have already been harvested by hand, but the resilient stalks remain erect.

Dr Patricia McAlernon fields the question on what the oil - CBD oil - is good for: “Reducing your anxiety, reducing inflammation, migraines, insomnia.”

While she has a doctorate in analytical chemistry Patricia is the driving force behind the enterprise’s retail limb, under the brand ‘Deus Dolor’. The Latin of Deus means ‘God’ while Dolor refers to pain, as their products are often used for pain relief.

“A couple of drops under your tongue three times a day,” says Patricia of how people typically take their CBD oil. “You can take a couple of drops in your coffee if you wish.”

Patricia’s soft mid-Ulster accent is undimmed by 15 years living in Cavan. Micheál’s Westmeath accent on the otherhand is elusive thanks to many years spent in Africa and eastern Europe researching the virtues of herbal remedies. Whilst in Africa he met his farming partner Kim Kindersley. The pair shared a passion in how traditional ways of making use of nature’s first aid kit still alive and well in Africa. They feel that Ireland, like many western countries, has become reliant on ‘big pharma’, at the expense of these traditional remedies. A laboratory they worked with on CBD oils introduced the pair to Patricia, and their combined efforts have resulted in their second harvest of hemp in drumlins of Cavan.

Hemp’s uses goes far beyond CBD oil. Micheál rummages through the clutch of hemp leaves in search of seeds.

“We press that,” he says of the half a dozen seeds gutterballing in the creases of his palm, “we get hemp seed oil. The hemp seed oil is like olive oil or flaxseed oil.

“The omegas in that are much higher than in fish oil. This has omega three, and it has omega six I think as well and has all the different trace elements that fish oil doesn’t have, so that’s even better for your joints.”

He remarks you can buy it in some major supermarkets for about €8 a bottle.

“The crop yields are very low,” Micheál explains of the price, adding that it’s a time consuming process, as the plants are harvested by hand.

“Then there’s a lot of work in drying it, cleaning it, and then the extraction of the hemp seed oil.”

He adds that it’s a reasonable price as “you only take a spoonful a day”. It can be used in low temperature cooking - “Ideal for salad dressing, much healthier than anything else,” suggests Micheál.

The hemp seed can also be ground into a flour.

“That’s 40% protein,” enthuses Micheál. “It’s the highest protein seed of all the cereals.”

The seed could also be used as a sprinkle for your morning bowl of porridge in the same way as linseed.

“It’s much more efficient than linseed, way ahead,” said Micheál. “So for vegans, this is the ideal source of protein.”

We’re still not done with the hemp crop yet. The stalk is fibrous and can be used to produce fabric. “Wars were fought over hemp,” he says, explaining that it was needed by navies for ship sails and was essential for the clothing industry.

“The first Levis jeans were made of hemp. And the reason why they change cotton was because they couldn’t wear out the hemp ones,” Micheál says with a laugh.

Crack open the stalk and you’ll reveal a hurd inside. That that can be utilised for animal bedding. A natural polymer can even be extracted and used in 3D printing?

Just when we think we must be have exhausted the hemp plant...

“There’s not one piece of it wasted,” Micheál assures, and yanks up a stalk to reveal the plant’s shallow roots.

“We are not doing it at the moment, but that could be dried and crushed into a powder and get some medical values as well.”

Whilst hemp is their main focus, the majority of the farm however is essentially a bee heaven with wildflower meadows and nature reserve. Birdsong is a constant soundtrack for the visit. Starlings festoon telegraph lines around the house. Their complex of polytunnels for drying hemp is invaded by a trio of chaffinches.

Half a dozen beehives are hunched in the dip of a field. In addition to ensuring the hemp plants are pollinated, they produce that most famous of healing substances, honey.

“The yields were way, way down,” Micheál reports, matter of factly. “It’s been a pretty temperamental year for bee hives in general.”

At the crest of the rising fields, beside their quaint whitewashed cottage, workmen have been overhauling a barn to create a natural healing centre for like minded people.

They hope it will help “educate” people about the importance of diet and “how to live properly”.

Hemp is a misunderstood crop due to its close relative, cannabis. Micheál more bluntly puts it, that there’s “an ignorance and people need to be educated” about it . While cannabis possesses THC which is the psychoactive, hemp typically has only minuscule traces of THC.

“Some people think the CBD oil contains THC, ours has zero THC in it, you cannot get high,” assures Patricia.

Micheál says it’s relatively easy to get a commercial hemp growing license in Ireland, however he sounds a note of frustration that the sector doesn’t receive government support when they believe it could generate employment for rural communities. He says the government could help establish decortication plants - units where the soft fibre is separated from the hurd to make fabric.

Bottom line, is their enterprise profitable?

“They say the first three years of businesses is the hardest. Get to the third year, we can raise the flag then,” he says.

“We’re pioneers,” says Micheál. “We are at the cutting edge. We have to try to find the markets. I would not recommend anyone, just to jump in without having a market for the products.”

That lack of ready-made market hasn’t stunted his ambition. He suggests that in sunnier, drier parts of the country tillage farmers could use hemp as a rotational crop.

“This could be part of a rotational system, every three years - and you could have thousands and thousands of acres and have a decortication plant set up every 60-70km of a radius.”

He adds: “This is only the start of something amazing - hopefully we will be able to expand out and offer contracts with other farmers, to get farmers to grow on our behalf eventually, in other worlds become part of a cooperative to help the local community.”