Co-op leads UK hemp production

Co-operatives are known for being innovative and Co-op Loan Fund’s latest borrower is certainly that. It is also very unusual. Hempen, based near Reading, is the leading grower and producer of organic hemp CBD (cannabidiol) products in the UK.

The worker co-op, which has six members and six volunteers, has been developing since 2015 By the end of the 2017 growing season, Hempen had harvested over 25 tonnes of hemp seed for use in culinary produce and cosmetics and harvested and dried over 800kg of plant material for essential oil production.

The finance from Co-op Loan Fund will enable Hempen to build a new barn and purchase equipment to increase production significantly.

Hemp is a very versatile low-impact crop with over 25,000 known uses including food, health products, cosmetics, housing, fuel, textiles, composite materials and more. At present Hempen mostly produces health food supplements including CBD essential oil, which is claimed to have anti-inflamatory, anti-spasmodic and relaxing qualities, and hemp seed oil which is particularly high in vitamins and essential fatty acids.

Hempen co-op member Patrick Gillett said: “We set up as a co-op because we believe in sharing power and responsibilities equally. We wanted to embed co-operative values into the core of the business from the very start.”

One of the challenges that the business faces is the degree of legal uncertainty around the growing of hemp. What they are doing is legal but they must reapply to the Home Office every year for a licence. Patrick Gillett said: “Strangely, there is less regulation involved in importing CBD products than there is in making them in the UK. This uncertainty works in our favour to some extent because it has kept bigger risk-averse businesses out of the market.”

Ian Rothwell, of Co-op Loan Fund, said: “This is a very enterprising business that is developing new markets for the produce of a traditional and versatile plant. It’s great that the leading producer of organically grown hemp in the UK is a co-op. It is another example of co-operatives nurturing innovation.”

Hempen received specialist support from the Just Growth funding programme designed to support community-based food and farming projects. Co-operative & Community Finance worked in partnership with Funding Enlightened Agriculture and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to deliver the programme, which is now closed to further applications.