Ulster farmer Michael Harnett started growing hemp as a crop five years ago and his wife and daughter are cold pressing the Omega rich extra virgin hemp oil as a functional food and are selling this fine farm produce at St George's Market in Belfast.
The oils were shown and tasted at Nicks' Warehouse last week during the Royal Visit and some was included in the gift hamper for the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall. Michael is passionate about growing this renewable crop as it is so versatile, and is one of a growing number of farmers sowing hemp crops.
Remarkably there are 25 thousand uses of hemp, parts of the plant can be used in everything for the house, including clothes, mattresses, paints, and fuels, food, and bio lubricants. Hemp fibre can be used in the building industry for insulation. "100 years ago all jeans were made from hemp or flax and now top designers are thinking maybe we should go back and look at it again," he said. "This is the short variety, used for oils and food. The cake is non glutenous which is very good for coeliacs, it can be used for bread, pasta, beer, all those products can be made from it. "It does produce straw, we have used it for building materials, for insulation and for horse beddings. It is five times more absorbent than straw, " Michael said. He said these are hemp oils with such a high Omega three, six, and nine content, that they are easy to digest.
At his Waringstown farm Michael grows 250 acres of traditional crops, wheat, oilseed rape, linseed and 100 acres of hemp under a special licence, as it is a variety of cannabis, but the crop he grows has only 0.1per cent TCH. "The drug element is so low, it is insignificant," he said. Michael warns that some imported hemp oils from countries like China, usually have a much higher Thc content, which means it may fail a drugs test, especially significant to those in sport.
According to Michael Northern Ireland's conditions the best suited to growing these crop, as there is plenty of moisture and long daylight hours, which helps the plant produce more oil. Significantly, in Northern Ireland there are higher yields of oil in the plant, up to 36 per cent of oil which is very high. He likens it to the way our ancestors grew flax here in the past.
The hemp is good for the environment as it is a very sustainable copy and sustains a high level of bird life, as it is one of the most paletable seeds for birds. He said bio -oils can be used in the production of plastics, foams, insulation, glues. "Vegetable oils derived from plants are better lubricants than mineral oils," he said. The fist renewables conference was held on the Waringstown for five years ago for interested parties to get together and promote their development in Northern Ireland, and they also contacted the National Non Food Crops Centre set up by DEFRA in England in a bid to forge UK links. "If there is a perceived phosphate problem, hemp is very good at absorbing phosphate out of the ground," he said.
A number of farmers in the North West of the Province are growing a slightly different hemp plant for fibre for building materials, he said. Michael said: "This year we got the breeding seed, we have encouraged Loughry College to grow it and show other people," he said. He said these are unusual crops in the modern environment, but are good crops which grow in rotation with wheat or barley or oilseed rape. He stressed that for every litre of oil we are not importing, it means money is kept in the Province. If we could grow more of this sustainable renewable versatile crop in Northern Ireland, it would mean all the money would be kept in the province with added value, he said. ''There is a whole image change that needs to be done, if we want to save the planet we have to go back to techniques we had before the petro-chemical industry, but use all the best advantages that science and society has," he said. He said we still have much to learn from nature, and to harness energies and raw materials. Fibres of hemp are as strong as steel, if properly woven, he said. Flax is approaching the strength of carbon fibre.
Grass growing in a field including weeds gathers energy from the sun and stores it at the same efficiency rates, as one acre covered in photo cells and that would have a cost of up to £50m, he said. There are also benefits if hemp is fed to animals, and it can produce good fats in beef if fed to cattle. "Chickens fed with hemp carry Omega three, six, nine essential fatty acids into eggs," he said.
He explained that when he started growing hemp five years ago, with the Agriculture Research Institute he was the only grower in Northern Ireland. Today, he is Northern Ireland's only breeder of this seed, developed by a company named Spring Dale Farms with the high Omega content.
"We are the only breeder of this seed, so that gives us the opportunity to export back out again," he said.
"We have 100 acres of hemp and half of that is used to develop the seed to sell on, and that will grow 500 acres of hemp," he said. Down on the farm his wife Ann and daughter Jane, have been perfecting the art of cold compressing the oils, which means, they are locally available, fresh, and are safe, and there are no food miles involved.
Jane said that with a 50 per cent grant from ICBAN and help from Loughry College, who provided an incubator for a year, they have been able to forge ahead with developing the new food products side of the family run business. She said it has a lovely nutty taste, and she was delighted with the response from people tasting it at St George's Market and at Balmoral Show. "As a functional food, the oils are very good for you and have additional benefits. It is a slow food, and is very high in unsaturated fats, so would help with cholesterol."
The cold presses were sources in the Czech Republic, she said. "Up to Christmas I was getting to grips with learning how to use the equipment, and I gt the press working right. We had the first batch of oil in April, but it took time to December for the bottles and labels to be made up," she said.
The oil is also being sold to some shops in Northern Ireland and to outlets in London, where her brother William is making great progress promoting and selling the product. The next move is to offer it to restaurants, hotels, butchers, and deli's and get a distributor, she said.
Jane said they are selling a range of oils including hemp oil, rapeseed, and sunflower oil. "Our aim is to process with the oils on their own and then go into salad dressings," she said. "Our oils are extra virgin, and are all grown locally and have more Omega essential fatty acids than olive oil, because they are cold pressed," he said. "Our seeds are grown from a crop, while olive oil is made from fruit," she said. "It has a light nutty flavour and you can cook or fry with it," she said . She said it helps bring out the taste of the food.
Jane explained that over 100 years ago people knew all about the advantages of hemp. There was an old hemp rope works in Belfast, around Conswater and its only in the last 80 years people have moved away from using it, she said. Washington used to grow hemp and linen flax seed. It was used a paper for money, she said. "We are lucky enough that people have started to cook with hemp oil and rapeseed, and people are starting to see the benefits in both of them," she said. She said the omega three, six and nine essential fatty acids are believed to be good for skin, hair, the central nervous system and conditions such as arthritis. "Both are full of vitamins, you get vitamin E and D from hemp and vitamins C and E from rapeseed, it's a very healthy oil," she said.
By Anne Palmer