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Ruatoria gears up for hemp production

A GROUP of Ruatoria primary production students with more than 300 years of horticultural experience between them are putting it to use at the country’s first low-THC hemp course.

Hemp is a species of cannabis, but unlike marijuana, has low levels of the mind-altering chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Ruatoria-based charitable company Hikurangi Enterprises last year planted a trial of 5000 low-THC hemp plants as a field crop.

The aim of that trial was to start conversations with the community about hemp as a potential industry.

This year, Hikurangi Enterprises has expanded its operations and seven whanau have obtained licences from the Ministry of Health to plant hemp crops.

Hikurangi Enterprises has partnered with Eastern Institute of Technology’s Ruatoria Regional Learning Centre to develop the necessary skills in the community, offering an experimental sustainable primary production course specialising in hemp.

“Our ethos has always been to develop industry based around the local skills and resources, and we identified a skill base in growing cannabis,” said Hikurangi Enterprises managing director and EIT tutor Panapa Ehau.

The 20-week course covers everything about growing and producing top quality, market-ready hemp.

“It is the first course in the country focused on growing hemp, that I know of,” Mr Ehau said.

Where it differs from most courses is that the growers are more experienced than their tutor.

“I am basically just the facilitator tying all of the stuff together and developing processes,” Mr Ehau said.

Caring for the cropThis included identifying viable seed, de-sexing plants, soil remediation and testing, and planting and maintaining the crop in a nursery and outdoors with irrigation.

They have also been working with Crown research institute Scion on breeding good hemp strains.

The idea was to be able to get the hemp up to certain production standards, which could then feed into wider hemp industry plans for the region, including producing medicinal cannabis, Mr Ehau said.

The course is based on hemp, but there is potential to use those production methods for marijuana if the laws changed.

“Globally, hemp and marijuana are coming back in,” Mr Ehau said.

“Many countries have legalised marijuana, and here it is not a matter of if but when.”

The Green Party has called for a referendum on personal marijuana use in 2020, and Labour plans to make medicinal cannabis available for people with terminal illnesses or in chronic pain.

“A number of whanau here on the coast grow marijuana to supplement their income, so when it becomes legal to grow, if we are not at the front of the waka all that income potentially disappears.

“Growers would much rather be able to put their skill into working in an open, safe and collaborative space.”

Te Araroa constable James Garbett said a low-THC hemp industry would be a positive step for the community.

He has been keeping in touch with Hikurangi Enterprises and EIT, and visited the course to get an idea of what they were doing.

Positive for community“If the hemp industry goes well, it will be really positive for the community.

“There are not a lot of employment opportunities in the area, and we are seeing potential for families to set up businesses.

“That's where I want to step in and help out. There are a lot of people in the area who grow the other, cannabis. It is a bit of an inter-generational thing.

“If we can change some of them to take up hemp production, it can provide a legal form of employment. There is massive potential for it all to take off.”

Constable Garbett is working with a trust in Te Araroa to support people taking the course at EIT.

“We have been getting really good feedback. We are in the process of identifying people and offering them support to do the course.

“They have to realise that it won’t happen tomorrow. It's more a long-term goal.”

GREEN ROOM: EIT Ruatoria sustainable primary practices student Jason Tamati checks for male and female hemp plants in the nursery. Pictures by Manu Caddie
NURSERY: The EIT Ruatoria sustainable primary practices course gets students to grow hemp from seed to plant in a semi-controlled environment, to ensure consistency.