BRITAIN’S richest man James Dyson recently speculated that if his latest indoor strawberry-growing venture failed he could always switch to cannabis cultivation.
Both are members of the rapidly-growing First Wednesdays network and featured in its recent UK Cannabis Ecosystem.
Margent Farm and Vitality Hemp – also feature in the Ecosystem legend – and clearly demonstrate the diverse skills, talent, innovation and passion of the entrepreneurs driving the UK’s fast-growing hemp and cannabis cultivation sector.
From Field To Farmhouse
When we spoke to Steve Barron, founder of Margent Farm, he was in Paris filming for the BBC with David Tennant in a re-make of the Jules Verne classic ‘Around The World In Eighty Days’.
Earlier in his creative career Steve was responsible for Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie-Jean’ and A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’ music videos, Wikipedia tells us.
After being introduced to CBD, Steve’s curiosity took him to its source material the cannabis/hemp plant – and so it began.
“There is something with hemp, when I researched it and discovered its potential, with construction and bio-plastics and the possibilities of the fibre, and its uses in so many diverse sectors, that really pushed me to do something as a project – and I opted to initially look at the fibre, rather than the seed.
“That project was to build something inspiring; to build a house on a farm, and get the material to build that house from a field that was right alongside it,” he says.
The licence to grow industrial hemp cost £500 for three years from the UK Home Office. Now into the fourth year, following a licence renewal, the journey continues.
Seed Crop Fetches £14,000
He said: “In the first year we grew the fibre, in the second year we built the house and last year we concentrated on a seed crop to make some oil and balms, as we looked into the the health benefits of hemp, whilst also exploring a way of financially making sense of what we are doing.”
The farm, near Huntingdon, is a total of 53 acres and last year’s seed crop took 12 of those, delivering seven tonnes of seed with a value of £14,000.
However, like all UK industrial hemp licence holders he has to destroy the leaves and the flowers due to their THC content. He estimates they would fetch in the region £90,000 at last year’s prices.
While the seed has a much greater value than the fibre Margent wants to explore the potential of a dual crop with the the fibre being used as a soil fertilising biochar and a bioplastic.
Steve added: “The farm will always have its narrative, its journey, the farmhouse – a centre for hemp inspiration and innovation, and we are now looking to build upon that story and continue to develop our brand.”
The Banker Turned Farmer
Nathaniel Loxley, founder of Vitality Hemp, also started as a cultivator but now says he, too, wants to focus more on the potential of the hemp plant across a range products and industries.
A former banker, in the anti-money laundering field, he discovered hemp seed and oil as part of a healthy diet in 2014.
Now, one of the leading members of the British Hemp Alliance, he said: “As with many people in this industry it starts from a point of passion and the more you read about it, and cannabis as a whole, and the more you learn, the more you question why we are not growing more hemp in this country?
“I was at a junction in life and I needed change so I decided to follow my passion and start a business, and get behind hemp. I could only see one way of doing it and that was to grow it.”
From farming 12 acres at an organic farm on rented land he now sub-contracts the growing to organic farmers cultivating across 150 acres.
Vitality Hemp produces a range of retail and trade products, including hemp oils, seeds, seed flour, soaps and even a yoga mat.
It is experimenting with the biomass and works with various universities and researchers including University College London and Cranfield, in niche areas for the fibre and end products.
Cutting Costs And Carbon Emissions
One recent debutant in its product portfolio is a micro-green growing mat, made from hemp fibre, which is suitable for salads and ethically compostable, whilst Nathaniel is also exploring other options and applications as replacements for plastics and paper.
He highlights the CBD trend as being a major draw for people coming into the industry, with the increased competition boosting innovation and helping to support the development of the infrastructure needed to support its growth.
In his home patch of Chichester, Sussex, the emergence of like-minded businesses pursuing similar paths is creating a critical mass of support operations, shortening logistic chains, cutting costs, and carbon emissions.
He said: “The equipment required to develop products at a smaller scale is coming to market.
“We are witnessing the growth of an emerging industry which is attracting lots of amazing talent from a host of various disciplines.
“Our interest now is in marketing and product development; in delivering high quality organic hemp products across Europe.
“We have clear direction. We are very excited going forward and we will continue to look for innovate ways to use the hemp plant.”
Hanway And First Wednesdays
Earlier this year Hanway Associates, the creators of the First Wednesdays Ecosystem joined forces with land and property agent Savills and agricultural construction specials CambridgeHOK, to launch Crop17.
It is a turnkey solution for planning, building and operating medical cannabis facilities to within the UK’s restrictive regulatory framework which currently offers two types of licences depending on the proposed THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) content of the crop.
Laurence Busch Hansen, an Analyst at Hanway Associates and First Wednesdays’ Head of Community, highlighted the challenges still facing the sector: “Medical cannabis cultivation companies are few and far between in the UK, highlighting the complex process of obtaining a licence from the Home Office.
“However, the process becomes much less opaque as more companies obtain hemp and high THC R&D licences, and the Home Office begins to communicate more with those looking to build commercial operations here.
“We are very positive about the development of the UK’s domestic market as we’re seeing more passionate entrepreneurs move into the sector, alongside reputable corporates from adjacent agricultural, energy, and food sectors.”
Sam Lewis, Director at Hanway, works with companies building and reviewing their business plans and assessing commercial viability said: “Entrepreneurs need to have a fully formed understanding of the market before diving into the space – we find that so many are still buying into the hype.
“Building achievable business plans while maintaining an attractive investment proposition is key to success at this point in the market, and something we support businesses with through our CROP17 partnership.
“There is a major opportunity to enter the market early but only if operators have a good understanding of how the market currently works and how it is likely to develop from both a domestic and international standpoint.”
From Oilseed Rape To Hemp
Campaigners Volteface, whilst recently flagging the launch of its Pleasant Lands hemp campaign, estimates there are some 2,000 acres under cultivation in the UK with over 50 active industrial hemp cultivation licences issued.
BusinessCann recently reported on UK hemp farmer Jamie Bartley’s plans for the country’s first large-scale processing plant, he says he has had interest from hundreds of farmers looking to grow hemp.
Jamie and Nathaniel both say the retreat of the once omni-present oilseed rape plant – whose yellow flowers had come to dominate the UK’s horticultural landscape – is one reason.
UK oilseed rape production recently dropped to its lowest level in 15 years after an EU insecticide ban prevented farmers tackling the blight which had attacked it in recent years.
Dyson’s Neighbours Leaders In The Field
Hemp had been a staple UK crop for hundreds of years before it suffered its own blight in the shape of the early 20th Century’s war on drugs.
The holistic hemp plant has uses in various endeavours from construction, industry, agriculture to bio-plastics, and its carbon cutting potential is immense, but the sector would ramp-up even faster if the UK’s restrictions on the use of the flowers and leaves were removed.
Nevertheless, its re-birth is catching the eye of some of the UK’s leading entrepreneurs as the interest of Mr Dyson – said to be worth over £16bn – clearly demonstrates.
His neighbour the Bridge Farm Group is now well-versed in cannabis cultivation. Backed by global cannabis investors Artemis Growth Partners it has both industrial hemp and high-THC licences at its growing facilities in Spalding.
It is currently exploring the plant’s potential with a view to entering the CBD and medicinal cannabis space.
Aquis Exchange-listed Ananda Developments is also looking to cultivate in Lincolnshire. In May, this year Chief Executive Melissa Sturgess told BusinessCann it’s in advanced talks with Home Office to secure a licence to grow high-THC cannabis.
Its £20m project would see it cultivate some 300,000 plants, capable of delivering an annual harvest of 200 tonnes for use in the UK and European medicinal cannabis markets.
Hemp and cannabis can be grown anywhere in the British isles with Vitality Hemp thriving in the South Downs and Margent Farm in Cambridgeshire.
The human and financial capital needed to help the industry develop is also amassing from all corners of the British Isles and as UK hemp and cannabis begin their cumulative re-birth, their potential seems immense.
*This feature has been produced by BusinessCann in association with Hanway Associates and its First Wednesdays network. It is the first in a series which will take a closer look at the businesses and the various market segments of First Wednesdays’ UK Cannabis Eco-system network.