A factory processing hemp for an increasing number of growers.
In recent years consumers have been influencing a drive by farmers and food producers/manufacturers to supply healthier, more sustainable products including plant-based proteins. Hemp crops have been taken up by farmers rapidly in New Zealand. It was one team of early hemp growers who quickly saw the need for a processing infrastructure. Hemp Connect made the move to processing and supply of hemp, and today is operating a rapidly growing processing plant in Whanganui.
A few years back Matt Johnson and Werner Schulze were looking at sustainable housing and hemp piqued their interest. Learning it was also a food, the men teamed up with Whanganui farmers Duncan and Craig Matthews who shared their passion for sustainability and farming. What started as a hobby has grown into a thriving business.
In the first year the men put in 5ha of hemp. Matt admits that they naively assumed that when the time came there would be somewhere to process the hemp. This was not the case. The obvious gap gave the men an early edge in the young hemp industry and they seized the opportunity to set up a hemp processing factory. Hemp Connect are now operating a factory in central Whanganui.
With no food background or experience they had to rely on trial and error and the good old number eight wire mentality. Their work was complicated by the secrecy of international players and the lack of information on Google at the time. The men persisted, seeing the value in providing a market outlet and processing security for farmers. The factory opened with an operational de-huller and all food licences in place.
Further equipment was brought in from China to add cold pressing machinery for oil production, small scale packing and a bottling machine. Mastering the equipment was a challenge, most of it came from ‘deep in China’ with no instruction manuals.
From the beginning Hemp Connect has bought seeds directly for processing and distribution, and contract processed for farmers that were keen to brand and market their own product, with their own story. Today the factory is able to take the raw hemp from the dressing stage (cleaning, grading and dehulling) through to a final product range that includes flours, oil, seeds and hemp hearts. With a commitment to organic product, they’ve eschewed chemical sterilisation agents and have opted for the first hemp processing UV line. The UV light removes unwanted pathogens (such as bacteria from bird poo) from the seeds.
The factory is able to store seed so that production can be rolled out across the year. This makes for a factory that can operate fulltime, and not just for the period around harvesting. Prior to dehulling the seeds, hemp is very stable and can be stored until being processed further, however once the hulls are removed the seed becomes volatile. The de-hulled product must be quickly vacuum packaged (i.e., oxygen removed and replaced with nitrogen), sealed and stored in darkness.
The through put growth at Hemp Connect has being increasing at a strong steady rate of around 350% per annum over the last 3 years. Hemp Connect is now moving from a start-up with ‘all hands-on deck’ to employing their first full-time staff. They’re also looking to increase storage capacity in order to increase production across the year.
They are able to process other grains and have run trials on mussel powders in their UV line. Matt says that they are not actively seeking other work and hemp will remain their core business. Indeed, they’re now neck deep in the regulatory work to broaden their market from NZ and Australia, to worldwide.
Showdown Productions Ltd. Rural Delivery Series 16 2021