Interview: “A more relaxed approach to hemp cultivation would be good for us all”

15.11.2018

Pick-your-own fruit ‒ hardly a new concept. But what if you could pick-your-own hemp for subsequent commercial processing? This is what Josef Bayer is experimenting with. The trained horticulturalist is operating Germany’s first ‘pick-your-own’ cannabis plant farm in Kronach in Bavaria. He talks about his venture, the bureaucratic obstacles he’s encountered and unwelcome nocturnal visitors. By Yasmin-Coralie Berg

Josef Bayer sees a lot of potential in hemp as a crop but believes a more relaxed attitude to its cultivation is necessary. Image: Josef Bayer

Your business is otherwise specialised in the cultivation of fruit but now you’ve decided to launch a ‘pick-your-own’ hemp undertaking. How did this happen?

I’ve long been familiar with the pick-your-own approach. We’ve been growing strawberries on my parent’s land for more than 30 years and some of the fields we’ve dedicated to the pick-your-own trade. I suffer from chronic irritable bowel syndrome and used to experience unpleasant symptoms as a result. In 2015, I decided to try out the effects of CBD (cannabidiol) oil. This is one of the most useful products that can be made from cultivated hemp.

And it really helped and still does! Since then, I’ve been hemp’s number one fan. I harvested my first crop of hemp in 2017 and while on the field I thought: ‘Pick-your-own strawberries, all well and good ‒ but surely you could do the same thing with hemp’. After I received written confirmation in late 2017 from the local authority that they had no objection to my idea of starting up a pick-your-own hemp business, I was able to get the venture under way.

What does the work involve? What are your main outgoings in connection with cultivation of the plants?

The usual for any start-up business. There’s the admin side, accounting, online promotion, customer support through to contact with the various media. I’ve given interviews, been on radio and TV ‒ done all that. And just to make sure that I don’t have the time to get bored, I have 1.5 hectares of hemp to look after ‒ 1 hectare Finola and 0.5 hectare Santhica 27. Both these are EU-approved hemp strains. As I’m not allowed to sell directly to private persons and the commercial dealers have nothing like the capacity to harvest all the blossoms produced, I had to rapidly acquire a harvester and a suitable drying facility. Since late July, I’ve been busy harvesting and drying hemp daily, not to mention all the customer contact activities I’m involved in.

Hemp is a remarkably tolerant plant. Outgoings in connection with cultivation and crop management represent the tip of the iceberg. What have proved most expensive to date have been the fees I’ve had to pay to my lawyer. Harvesting and drying are the second most costly factors, particularly when harvesting by hand ‒ then you need a lot of people who share your vision and field hands.

With what sort of requirements did you need to comply to get your venture started?

Hemp may only be grown as a crop by registered agricultural businesses. The hemp strains approved by the EU can only be seeded on agricultural land that extends to at least 1 hectare. So I decided to form my own agricultural company and I’ve leased 1.5 hectares of land. I had to submit an application to the local department of agriculture and contact the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (BLE) to notify them I was cultivating hemp, when it was ready to harvest and obtain permission to harvest.

What are the advantages of growing hemp?

At the moment I’m selling it as raw material for further processing. Hemp needs no additional fertiliser or pesticide protection. The plant is quite happy if you just make sure you don’t overuse the soil and other resources. The extract obtained from hemp has a slight calming effect, rather like that of hops. In addition, it has an anti-inflammatory and relaxing potential, is a mild analgesic and a stimulant. My customers always confirm that this is the case ‒ particularly those who are getting on in years.

The summer this year was characterised by prolonged heat and lack of rainfall. How did your hemp cope?

Not a problem at all. Even my dad was amazed at how hemp was able to take everything in its stride. On our other fields, our grain, maize and strawberry crops ended up scorched. Admittedly, the hemp looked a little limp during the day when exposed to the high temperatures, but in the evening the leaves were standing to attention again. Wow, really robust! Particularly the Santhica 27 strain with its very long tap root didn’t suffer from heat stress at all ‒ what an absolutely remarkable plant! Analysis of the flowers showed a fantastic level of cannabinoids; I assume this was because of the high temperatures and many hours of sun, something that it seems hemp can readily deal with.

You say you kept running into legal and bureaucratic obstacles. Why was this and what do you think should be changed?

In November I received written confirmation from the local authority that they had no objection to my pick-your-own hemp concept. When I got permission to harvest my crop and began selling directly to clients, the public prosecutor’s office in Coburg stepped in. According to them, self-picking is illegal as a year ago a new amendment had been introduced in the Narcotics Act (BtMG) that made this impossible.

So after running backwards and forwards between the local authority, the Federal Opium Agency, the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food and my lawyer, I’ve obtained permission to sell, but only to commercial dealers this year. Unfortunately, there are many illegal products on the market here that contain the maximum permitted amount of THC ‒ the stuff that gives you a high. Maximum permitted or tolerated, let’s say, because the source hemp has not been processed in accordance with current laws. An appropriate revision of the laws and a more relaxed approach to hemp cultivation would be good for us all. I’m convinced of this!

Have you got other plans in the pipeline?

Absolutely! But for the rest of this year I’m going to take things a bit easier. The recent weeks and months have sapped my energy and cost me a lot of nerves. But I’m already planning a version 2.0 pick-your-own hemp train ‒ toot, toot!

Your field is secured by a fence but do you get ‘unwanted’ visitors who are keen on getting their hands on your hemp?

Ohhhh yes! My hemp is really in demand ‒ particularly when it gets dark. As the field is just 100 metres from our house, we can watch our nocturnal guests at work. Not a big problem for me, although it can be for them if they get caught by the police. Because they will have what is in effect an illegal narcotic in their possession…

So in most cases when I see them busy in the field I approach them. I must admit most of them are quite civil and actually apologise. But I have had bad experiences ‒ on two occasions our night visitors forced their way through metre-high bushes and shrubs and when they got up to the fence, they simply used cutters to make a hole for access. Clearly professionals. I wasn’t that worried about the hemp they stole. But repairing the fence was expensive. Thanks guys!

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