Future bright for hemp
PAUL Benhaim is in an expansive mood as he outlines the great leaps forward he expects to see in the hemp industry in 2017.
The founder of Hemp Foods Australia has recently invested half a million dollars in new processing machinery at his Bangalow plant, where it produces certified organic hemp seeds, protein, hemp flour and hemp seed oil.
It is about to launch a new cosmetic range, Sativa - "the world's first certified organic hemp extract skin care range".
The company is also continuing to lobby to have the law changed to make it legal for hemp seed products to be sold as food in Australasia - as it is throughout the rest of the world.
But the big story, Mr Benhaim said, is a breakthrough in engaging enough producers to meet the burgeoning demand for hemp products from a domestic and export market it helped create.
This month it has assisted several large-scale Queensland farmers obtain licences to grow hemp - a major victory.
Meeting the demand hasn't been easy, Mr Benhaim said.
"We have been working to get Australian farmers on board since we began five years ago and we found it quite challenging for a number of reasons.
"Some farmers were scared that hemp was cannabis and was a drug and we have had to educate them that industrial hemp, our raw material, doesn't contain any psychoactive ingredients that would get you high.
"Finally, we have found some great farmers and we are continually looking for more.
"In 2017 we expect to be growing $15.5m worth of hemp food products direct from Australian certified organic farmers - maybe a 30% step-up in total revenue from sales, but in terms of local Australian farming it's a much bigger increase.
"We're very excited about that and it's big news because we have a four-year plan that will make Australia the largest single exporter of certified organic hemp grain in the world.
"We have found farmers growing tens of thousands of acres of certified organic crops and have very clear ideas about techniques they have learned about how to grow organic produce within Australia successfully."
The company has several growers in NSW but this is its first venture into Queensland.
"Hemp is not brand new for Queensland but it is on this scale for seed and grain. Other companies have tried for fibre but it never had the market," Mr Benhaim said.
"So we have brought these people together to work out systems where they can all help each to improve all of their crops and all we care about is that they start to incorporate hemp into their rotational crops.
"Hemp is a wonderful rotational crop because it only takes 100-110 days to grow, giving you the rest of the year to grow other crops.
"We created the market first so we would have the ability to support farmers, and that's our role in the field. We want to be the people who bring the market, bring the business back to the land.
"Our focus is on supporting the good old Australian farmer."
Mr Benhaim said the company was continually working with and investing in Australian certified organic farmers, and seeking others who were willing to transition to organics.
"We understand it's not an easy process and we have the team within our business now to support farmers who are interested in becoming organic."
It has taken "years of work" to find suitable farmers and Mr Benhaim says "now we've found some people we believe will make Australia a world leader in industrial hemp".
Years have gone by waiting for the legislation covering growing the crop to change too.
"We began working on getting it accepted 18 years ago, when I first came to this country," he said.
"Meanwhile, we've watched the global arena grow from a small niche industry to a multi-billion-dollar industry.
"It's currently one of the fastest growing sectors within the fastest growing health food sector in Europe and North America.
"It's something we need to get on the bandwagon with as soon as we possibly can ... before we get taken over by the rest of the world."
In April he hopes the last constraints on treating hemp seeds as a food will be lifted, so Australian and Kiwi foodies and healthy eaters can legally ingest them.
At present the packets have a sticker covering the "food use" data on the back, warning purchasers that the contents are not to be eaten.
He is "very excited" at the prospect of change in the law, which will increase demand even further.
And now he has the resources to be able to meet it.