A horticultural course in Ruatoria has attracted enormous interest from applicants interested in learning more about growing hemp.
The course, organised by the Eastern Institute of Technology, has received more than 600 applications from Kiwis eager to land one of the 30 spaces.
Preference was given to local people, or those with East Coast connections wanting to return home, said tutor Robin Te Moana Thomson.
"The enthusiasm for this is incredible. It's helping bring some of our whanau home," says Thomson.
One student wants to grow the fibrous variety, with the aim of producing hemp fabric for his daughter, who is a fashion designer.
The programme is run in partnership with Hikurangi Enterprises, which holds the licence to grow hemp – a non-psychoactive variety of cannabis.
Once hemp growing has been decriminalised for medicinal use, which is expected to happen at the end of the year, graduates will be able to sell their hemp to the company.
The Hikurangi Enterprise group is currently trialling medicinal cannabis products and hopes to build a processing facility in Ruatoria within the next 18 months, with a pharmaceutical-grade medical cannabis processing facility in Gisborne.
The business has already raised millions of dollars through crowd-funding initiatives.
Students are split between the company's two nursery sites, one near Ruatoria and the other in Tikitiki. Both are 100 percent chemical-free organic operations.
Students are taught to use natural resources, such as vinegar and rosemary oil for pest control and soil conditioning. They learn how to make compost, using seaweed from nearby beaches and manure from farms.
Each student has their own row of plants, and companion plants such as tomatoes and sunflowers. The plants all look incredibly lush. Thomson believes that because they are grown in such optimal conditions they are virtually pest free.
"We did have a problem with green beetles but we overcame this by collecting beetles, crushing them and spraying them with water over the plants. It acted as a deterrent."
The aim will eventually be to harvest plants before they flower, to get the maximum level of CBD, which is the active ingredient for medicinal cannabis. But until there is a licence to process the plants, all plants raised in the nurseries have to be destroyed on site.
The 20-week programme runs from December to April, which is the growing season for hemp. Students qualify with the full range of core skills in sustainable horticultural production, including health and safety.
Following this Thomson will be leading a 20-week course on mahinga kai (growing your own food) which is his first passion. This fees-free programme, Mahinga Kai Te Hoata will lead to a NZ Certificate in Maori traditional food production, harvest and management.
The next hemp growing programme starts in December.