Australian state of Victoria sets hemp trials at ‘smart farm’

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The government in the Australian state of Victoria will back hemp trials at an existing “smart farm” project under a two-year collaboration. Sunraysia Institute of TAFE (SuniTAFE), a trade school, and private hemp company Australian Primary Hemp, Geelong, are to partner on the project based on an agreement worked out under government supervision.

The partnership is to carry out research and development under SuniTAFE’s SMART Farm initiative, a “digital farming” project in which the latest technology is used to collect, store, analyze and share electronic data along the agricultural value chain. The trial site is at Mildura, at the northern tip of the state, 500 km northeast of Adelaide.

The announcement of the trials follows a one-year study by a state government task force formed last year which this week issued an interim report that suggests industrial hemp can strengthen local economies and boost employment in the southern Australian state, and points out what is needed to achieve those goals.

‘Next step forward’

“If successful, the trial would send a strong positive signal for hemp production and cultivation in the Sunraysia region, which could lead to the establishment of a promising new local industry, creating more local jobs,” said Jaclyn Symes, Victoria’s Agriculture Minister, who announced the developments this week. The Sunraysia region, which straddles Victoria and the neighboring state of New South Wales, is known for its abundant sunshine, under which vineyards, orange groves and grain farms flourish.

“Through the task force, we’ve developed a thorough understanding of the industry and regulations surrounding industrial hemp; this information is vital for our next step forward in developing industrial hemp in Victoria,” said Symes, whose portfolio also includes ministries for Regional Development, and Resources.

SuniTAFE is part of a network of 17 TAFE vocational institutes across the state. Australian Primary Hemp offers farmers support in seed selection, farming and processing, contract packaging, and bulk and retail sales.

Challenges identified

Victoria’s hemp task force spent 12 months talking to industry stakeholders and research organizations to develop the interim report, which suggests that to develop the state’s industry, improvements are needed in processing capability, knowledge gaps about hemp cultivation need to be closed, some regulatory barriers remain to be overcome, and more study is needed about potential hemp markets.

Hemp is already grown in Victoria, primarily for food and cultivation seed, through a licensing scheme under the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981. The licensing program also authorizes processing and sales.

Current status of hemp

Roughly 200 hectares (~500 acres) of hemp were planted in Victoria in the 2019-20 growing season, up from 170 hectares (~420 acres) the previous year. While 600 (~1,500 acres) hectares of hemp were sown in 2017-18, low water availability caused fields to be reduced over the past two years, the government said in the report issued this week.

Australian Primary Hemp and Waltanna Farms, Hamilton, another farm company, are among a handful of commercial, large-scale growers who produce the bulk of hempseed grown in Victoria, according to the report. Both are located in western districts of the state.

Leading traditional crops in Victoria are wheat, barley, oats, canola, lentils, faba beans and chickpeas. In 2018-19, the state had 5,848 commercial-scale agri-businesses operating on a total land area of 3.45 million hectares (~8.5 million acres). The total gross value of the state’s winter crop production that season was AU$1.85 billion (~US$1.3 billion), 15 percent of Australia’s national total, according to Agriculture Victoria, a government farming agency.

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