Everything you wanted to know about farming hemp

You often hear farmers say dairy or wool has been in their blood for generations. However, in the case of hemp, producers are having to start from scratch.

When Maxine Shea was diagnosed with a rare pituitary brain tumour, she desperately wanted hemp for treatment. Accessing it though was not easy, so she and her partner Mike starting growing it themselves.

Now they run The Hemp Collective out of the NSW Byron Bay region. It hasn’t been easy, not just learning how to harvest the product, but also external challenges from COVID, to floods, to fire. Despite all that, they are so passionate about this product and correcting some of the misinformation surrounding it.

Maxine entered the industry during a very challenging time in her own life after she was diagnosed with a brain tumour when her son was nine-months-old.

Maxine went down the hemp path when she was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

“We were looking for natural alternatives to incorporate into our lifestyle and hemp just kept coming up. We couldn’t grasp why people weren’t looking more at this misunderstood plant about 10 years ago!

“We decided to do it. We leased a piece of land, grew three hectares of hemp and hand harvested. Then, we wanted to incorporate this amazing plant into a natural approach for health. That’s when our product range came to the fore,” Maxine explains.

An emerging industry

One of the barriers to expanding the hemp farming industry is perhaps a wider gap in knowledge. The Hemp Collective grows hemp for seed oil which is blended into self care products like shampoo and moisturiser for humans and pets. Whereas medicinal cannabis comes from the flower.

The seed oil is used to make products for humans and pets.

“Ultimately, from hemp you can get fibre, seed and flower. What we do is the seed oil, which became legal as a food in 2017. If you grow a different part of that, you can get fibre for clothing or even to make buildings.

“Then, you’ve got the flower which can be grown under a medicinal cannabis licence, which then becomes medicine – that’s the complicated side of it. If I’m being basic there are three ways.

“THC is a bit different. It’s a bit like us – you and your cousin are the same but different. The same genetics but a different person. THC has the psychoactive effect if it’s been heated. CBD is what balances that out, done in a correct way.”

Maxine recalls a customer once asking her if their dog would “get stoned” off her hemp shampoo bars for animals. “Absolutely not!” she laughs.

The challenges to growing hemp

Given all that, hemp hasn’t been as easy road. Maxine says the decision to hand plant and hand harvest wasn’t ideal and now sees a lot of technology used to produce grain finally being adapted to hemp farming.

“I’d like it to happen a bit quicker if I’m being honest. It is more difficult than a normal business. It’s a difficult sell, educating people that it’s not a drug.”

Five years in, she says they are only just starting to see some financial rewards being stocked in 200 stores around the country.

It’s taken five years to reap the financial rewards for their products.

It’s not just growing hemp that’s a challenge, it’s also what to do with it. Maxine and her husband have created an education course to help other farmers work through that.

A lot of people are getting a hemp licence and then struggling to work out what to do with it.

“You have to start from the end. If you’re creating a product, think what that product is. From grassroots to bringing out a product – there are a lot of steps in there.”

New roles within hemp continue to emerge such as creating new technology to make growing easier, working on infrastructure to process fibre and product research. Maxine is only too happy to share her own mistakes, looking back on their very first crop.

“We didn’t realise how much we were going to grow. So, instead of losing the crop, we had to move it off to another farm for more space to hang the plants. We actually breached our licence by moving any component off the farm.

“My husband Mike had arrived with a trailer load of hemp to hang and there were six detectives and three police ready to seize all of our plants.” The police eventually verified their story. “The head officer came back and said, ‘Alright, for the first time in 25 years, you can keep your cannabis’.”

Maxine laughs about it now but it gives a sense of the hurdles they’ve faced over the years. “People think it’s weed, THC, that they will smoke it and they will get high. I don’t know anybody who’s gotten high off hemp!”

People think it’s weed, that they will smoke it and they will get high.

Maxine says, she’ll keep spreading the word, her ultimate dream to see hemp understood and appreciated.

Hear more stories just like Maxine’s by subscribing to the Telling Our Story podcast on iTunes (or wherever you listen to podcasts) and follow podcast host Angie Asimus on Instagram for more updates.

Angie Asimus

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