The hemp industry is on a high and has taken seed in Horowhenua with a new plant.
Product manufacturer Hemp Connect has set up a manufacturing plant in Levin producing a range of hemp seed products.
The former eel factory on Main Road South, was being significantly upgraded and was expected to be fully operational early next year, employing 10.
The factory was able to turn raw hemp seed into a final product range that included flours, oils, oil capsules, seeds, protein powders and hemp hearts.
Hemp Connect operated from a factory in Whanganui four years ago until they outgrew their existing site, and board members identified Levin as the perfect spot to base production.
Hemp Connect sales manager Jacob Wingate said Levin offered ease of access to main arterial routes.
Wingate said Hemp Connect initially imported seed from China, but now was able to source them through hemp farmers in New Zealand.
"We can sell to our customers a New Zealand-grown product," he said.
A close seed supplier was in Sanson, and they also sourced seeds from Waikato, Wairarapa, Taranaki, Hawkes Bay and Whanganui farms. Harvest season was in late summer.
Come harvest time there was a small window of opportunity.
"Birds can decimate a crop from one day to the next. The seeds are so nutrient-dense. We know that, and birds know it too," Wingate said.
The Levin factory was able to store seed in large silos so production could be rolled out year round. Hemp Connect products could be found in 200 retail outlets throughout New Zealand.
The industry was still in its infancy and had huge capacity for growth.
Wingate said Hemp Connect was in a position to capitalise on a law change in New Zealand in 2018 that legalised hemp seed products for human consumption, paving the way for new industry.
He said the decision was widely welcomed after decades of fear and misinformation. It was seen as another step in distinguishing the difference between industrial hemp products and the type of plants grown for recreational drug use.
"We have to unwind and unpack the difference between hemp and marijuana," he said.
Hemp and marijuana were derived from the same species of plant, but he said it was like trying to compare "alcohol and grape juice".
Cannabis varieties grown legally in New Zealand for their fibre were known as industrial hemp and had a much lower narcotic content than the illicit varieties, estimated to be 75 times as strong.
Wingate, who was also a shareholder of Hemp Connect, said hemp was a hardy plant that didn't require sprays or pesticides.
He said it had a wide range of health benefits and was gluten-free. Byproducts from the plant had the potential for thousands of applications.
"It's the strongest plant fibre known to man. It can feed us, clothe us, house us and heal us," he said.
A keen surfer, Wingate said he takes a tablespoon of hemp oil every night before bed for joint mobility.
Once the factory upgrade was complete they would look to build offices at the front with the view of establishing a shop front where the products would be sold.
Wingate said Hemp Connect was aiming to be a leader in the New Zealand market and would adapt to any possible law changes around CBD products in the future.
They had received $250,000 from the Ministry of Primary Industries for hemp optimisation projects to look at how they could maximise the nutritional output.
"How can we maximise nutritional output? How can we feed more people?" he said.
Hemp Connect founders Matt Johnson and Werner Schulze first became interested in the hemp industry after looking into sustainable housing materials.
Learning hemp was also a food, they teamed up with Whanganui farmers Duncan and Craig Matthews to look at production possibilities.
What started as a hobby had quickly grown into a thriving business and part of a drive by food producers worldwide to supply healthy, sustainable plant-based protein.
In the first year they planted five hectares of hemp, assuming there would be somewhere to have it processed. There wasn't, so four years ago they set up a hemp processing factory in Whanganui.
Initially they relied on trial and error, but persistence paid off. They then bought in equipment from China - cold pressing machinery for oil production and small scale packing and bottling machines.
The investment in the hemp industry in Horowhenua continues a long association with the plant in the region.
Towards the end of WWII the Ministry of Agriculture planted 4ha of hemp at Foxton. But in 1948 those trials ceased when it was realised the cannabis had narcotic properties.
In the 1890s, nun and nurse Suzanne Aubert reputedly grew hemp up the Whanganui River at Jerusalem and made her own remedies.
In the 1900s hemp-seed oil was a common ingredient in imported patent medicines, being prescribed for ailments such as gastric illnesses, rheumatism, headaches and menstrual cramps.
Hemp fibres are very long, making them desirable for manufacturing rope, fabric and other products. The seed oil contains essential fatty acids, and has similar health-giving properties to fish and flax-seed oils.
From the late 1990s, a small but vocal lobby promoted the cultivation of non-narcotic industrial hemp, emphasising that it could be grown without pesticides or sprays.
The New Zealand Hemp Association, which represents industrial hemp growers, has long stated it has no interest in the cannabis drug use debate, except where it impedes development of the hemp industry.
From 2001 the New Zealand government allowed trial plantings of industrial hemp. In 2006 the cultivation of industrial hemp was permitted under licence.
Only specified low-narcotic types of the plant were allowed. Industrial hemp varieties have such low concentrations of THC that they were of no value as a recreational drug.