East Anglia growers in switch from peas to hemp – UK

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East Anglia’s vining pea growers could switch to a profitable alternative crop and plant hemp this spring, members of Norfolk’s oldest farming club have been told.

And Europe’s biggest hemp proces-sing plant at Halesworth is planning a £5m investment to boost production of insulation materials, said managing director Mike Duckett.

He told members of Stalham Farmers’ Club that a housing development of 114 houses at Diss will use the environmentally-friendly material, made from hemp and lime, he said.

While the automotive industry was turning hemp fibre into a light-weight and strong car panels, Mr Duckett said that the crop’s green credentials was starting to win major markets. The factory, which had the capacity to process seven tonnes an hour, was opened in July 2008.

“When we’re running at full pelt, we will be processing about 50,000 tonnes each year. Now, today, we are not only processing hemp but also linseed straw. We’re also turning 1,0000 tonnes of rape straw this year into animal bedding so spreading the risks,”said Mr Duckett. It was acquired by Lime Technology from administration in June last year and renamed Hemp Technology.

Since the modern hemp processing industry had started in 1993 by Harlow Agricultural Merchants, better growing techniques and processing had increased the potential opportunities, he added.

“The brakes on Dockland Light Railway trains will be using hemp fibre from this year,” said Mr Duckett, who said that scientists were also investigating hemp fibre’s potential as a bullet-proof material to replace Kevlar, which was 20 times more expensive.

“There is now a growing demand for its products – and it can be profitable break crop for farmers. It is very low chemical input, which is becoming very topical.”

An average crop, yielding 7.5 tonnes of straw at £135 per tonne in October, could generate a gross margin of £537 hectare, there were some potential headaches. For example, pigeons just loved the crop in the first few days after emergence, said Mr Duckett.

Once the crop was cut, usually in mid August, it needed to be left for a couple of weeks for the retting process to start. Then, it was raked up and baled, typically into large Hesston bales.

The straw had to be stored, under cover. Mr Duckett said that Hemp Technology was offering contracts for straw at 16pc moisture contract in October, with an additional £1.50 per tonne per month.

Then the material was processed. It breaks down into roughly 50pc shiv or hurd, which is a woody material, 30pc fibre, and 18pc dust. “There is no waste and 98pc of the plant is used. We take the raw straw, which is turned into fibre, shiv and dust.”

Mr Duckett said that a new loft insulation product would be launched early next month. “We intend to invest another £5m at the end of this year or beginning of next year to manufacture insulation materials,” he added.

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