Liam Collins meets two hemp producers intent on reviving an ancient industry that just might offer a lifeline to struggling farmers.
His ancestor invented Guinness almost 300 years ago by roasting the barley; now Kim Kindersley has turned to the cultivation of the cannabis plant, hemp.
From his smallholding in Co Cavan, he’s helping to revive an industry that disappeared from the Irish countryside a century-and-a-half ago.
Kindersley and Michael Ó Lionsaigh, a Cavan farmer, are harvesting their hemp crop to produce CBD oil, which is undergoing a worldwide boom because of its perceived medicinal qualities.
“Hemp is believed to be the oldest cultivated crop in the world; it could bring life back to rural Ireland,” says O’ Lionsaigh – who, like Kindersley, is passionate about a plant that can be used to produce thousands of products and is leading the boom in hemp oil production.
Sitting in a mobile home beside the farm’s quaint rural cottage, they, and various friends and acquaintances who have gathered for the harvest, extol the virtues of hemp, a non-intoxicating variety of the cannabis plant with less than 0.3pc THC, the compound that produces the ‘highs’ associated with cannabis use.
“Growing it here with family and friends gives us all a connection to the land,” says Ó Lionsaigh. Because of its close association with cannabis, it is highly regulated.
Despite a worldwide boom for its derivate products, there seems to be no official appetite to revive a crop that was once extensively grown in Ireland to supply the sailing industry with the product needed to make ropes, rigging and sails for ships in the era before steam and diesel.
Kindersley grew up spending summer holidays at the Luggala Guinness estate with his grandmother Oonagh Guinness.
He met Mike in Kenya, where he was studying the ancient shamans and their connection to the land and the use of plants, roots and bark for what is known as ‘herbal medicines’.
They decided to get involved in a growing movement to revive hemp – a tall, thistle-like plant that thrives in the drumlin country of Cavan.
Seán, who has arrived from Longford to help with the harvest, is a historian who says evidence of the plant has been found in Woodstown in Waterford from the year 850.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was widely grown around Skerries and Rush in north Dublin and it was often combined with linen for strength.
It is now undergoing a revival as a by-product of the growing cannabis industry, although they are all at pains to point out that hemp by-products like CBD oil don’t and can’t give users a ‘high’.
“CBD oil has remarkable properties,” says Kindersley.
“More and more people who were sceptical have taken it and it has changed their lives,” he says, citing its anti- inflammatory properties – which help with arthritis, in particular, and a whole raft of other ailments.
Gathering a few wheelbarrows and secateurs, we set off for the four-acre plot just coming into bloom on the farm near Stradone, a couple of miles from Cavan town.
“Rub the top of the plant,” says Ó Lionsaigh. When you do, fragrant oil sticks to your hand – but not in a cloying way. This is a totally organic product, it brings people back to their roots. This could be a lifeline for many farmers because it is an alternative crop and it remediates (revives) the soil. It can produce hundreds of different products.”
We are joined by his young son Niall as we move through the field, cutting the taller plants low down to leave long stems so that it can be laid out on wires to dry, like tobacco, in the polytunnels at the back of Ó Lionsaigh’s farmhouse.
When it is ready, the seeds of the dried plant are cold-pressed (like top-quality olive oils) to extract the concentrated oil, which is siphoned into small bottles and labelled under their brand name, Hu Botanicals.
“We have 12 acres here; everything is organically grown and hand-harvested,” says Ó Lionsaigh.
“Everything is done in a very beautiful way,” chimes in Kindersley, who is based in England but has come over for the harvest.
They both believe that the ultra-strict and convoluted licensing regime regarding hemp should be relaxed.
What they call ‘Big Pharma’ is also trying to increase restrictions so that it can move in on the artisan cottage industry, they say.
Pharmaceutical giants want it regulated to such a degree, they believe, that the “natural” product of small producers will eventually be replaced by a synthetic pill.
“What we’re doing is not only preserving our natural farming heritage but helping people to deal with life ‘in the fast lane’,” says Kindersley.
Hemp, they say, is biodegradable and its by-products can be used in everything from 3D printing to building houses.
A US patent has also found that cannabinoids, such as those found in hemp, “have antioxidant properties… useful in a treatment of a wide variety of diseases”.
In the peaceful setting of a Cavan hill-farm, the field is buzzing with wildlife from the bees from the row of hives at the end of the field, to colourful flocks of goldfinches swooping and zigzagging in flight across the tops of the tall, dark-green hemp plants.
Taking a break from filling the wheelbarrows, Ó Lionsaigh looks over to a distant hill, which helps him gauge when rain is on the way.
“Hemp can bring people back to their roots; this plant is in our DNA,” he says.
His grand plan, apart from producing the CBD oil, is to turn the cottage and outbuildings into a healing centre.
But, in the meantime, more volunteers are arriving and the job of bringing in the harvest has to take priority over further discussion about the magical powers associated with the plants blooming amid the wild-flower meadows of rural Cavan.
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