Former school chums Nathan McNiece and Tim Crow stand amid a crop of hemp plants that come up to their chests. The fat seed heads are almost ready for harvest and the air is filled with the heady aroma of cannabis resin.
Now business partners, McNiece and Crow are on a farm in northern Tasmania to witness the harvest of their 2018 hemp crop. Co-founders of start-up food company Fair Foods, they are keen to promote a nutrient-rich, plant-based diet.
"We both wanted to eat better, more sustainable food," says 23-year-old McNiece. The son of gym owners, he has been raised on a diet of good, clean food and exercise – a keen Aussie Rules amateur, he shares a love of ball sports with his business partner Crow, 24, a former rugby player and avid surfer.
"We started researching and reading books such as Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma," says McNiece. "We understood that using animals as a food is not only unsustainable it is also inefficient." Thus began their quest to find ecologically sustainable protein from plants. "And that is how we came across hemp seeds," says Crow.
That was more than four years ago. Back in 2013, low THC hemp seeds for human consumption were not permitted for sale in Australia. THC is tetrahydrocannabinol, just one of many compounds called cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant to protect it from insect attack and ultraviolet damage. THC is also psychoactive and is the chemical responsible for the altered state people experience after consuming marijuana.
Marijuana is just one strain of the many types of hemp grown around the world, mostly for fibre. Hemp grown for food produces negligible amounts of THC – less than 0.5 per cent. This has no effect on humans.
While hemp seeds were available for sale around the world and were already legally growing in Tasmania, Australia's food regulator, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) spent years deliberating its approval for sale. This did not stop the two young entrepreneurs from working on plans to sell the seeds. They developed a brand, marketing strategy, packaging and business plan. Then, in November last year, FSANZ finally gave the green light for the sale of hemp seeds.
McNiece pulls apart the sticky head of the plant to reveal a handful of little seeds. They are small and covered in a coarse husk. Once this is removed, the seeds look like a round sesame seed without the crunchy skin. The texture is smooth and creamy, the flavour not dissimilar to sesame but with an earthy note, and with the texture of avocado. They are quite delicious.
What could make hemp a food of choice for the clean living brigade is that they are a nutritionally dense source of protein. Lentils, for example, contain 9 to 15 per cent protein. Tofu contains 16 per cent. Peanut butter contains around 25 per cent protein. And Fair Foods hemp seeds come in at 36.7 per cent protein.
What is really interesting is the fat content. At 46.6 per cent fat, hemp seeds are incredibly rich. That fat is 36.7 per cent polyunsaturated vegetable oil and 6.6 per cent monounsaturated oil.
Crow is keen to stress that the oils contain the optimal ratio, three to one, of omega-6 to omega-3. The delicate fats are prone to oxidation and can quickly turn rancid with exposure to air and sunlight. To keep the product fresh, Fair Foods processes the hemp seed to order. The seed is stored, unhulled, under temperature-controlled conditions and small batches are dehulled as demand requires. The processed seeds are packed into plastic-lined resealable foil bags and flushed with nitrogen to keep them fresh.
The farmer, Tim Schmidt, arrives at the 10-hectare hemp plantation on his motorbike. A laconic man with a dry sense of humour, he is also a farmer moving with the times.
He has 320 hectares of grazing and cropping land with Mount Quamby and the Great Western Tiers mountain bluffs forming a dramatic backdrop. He sees plenty of benefits in growing hemp, not just for the income from the seeds he's growing for Fair Foods and the money he will get from the dry stalks he sells for garden mulch. He likes what the plants do for the soil.
"Once established, hemp outgrows everything else," says Schmidt. "They have such a prolific leaf coverage that almost nothing grows underneath them so we don't have to spray for weeds," he says. When harvested, the bottom part of the stem remains in the ground, the extensive roots under it. This becomes food for the insects, fungus and bacteria underground, which quickly turn the roots into valuable water-absorbing, carbon-rich humus.
Unlike some of the novel foods prescribed by the healthy eating movement, hemp seeds are actually moreish. They are good added to muesli, sprinkled over salads and mixed through sweet slices. Their small size and creamy white colour make them an attractive garnish and their texture adds a layer of creaminess.
Fair Foods is a new company bankrolled by "love money", as McNiece describes it. "Ourselves, family and friends," clarifies Crow. "Which means we are living frugally," says McNiece. "And eating a lot of hemp seeds," says Crow with a hearty laugh.
Fair Foods hemp seeds sell for $19.95 for 240 grams at fairfoods.co.
Richard Cornish travelled to Tasmania as a guest of Fair Foods.
Photo: Richard Cornish
Date, chocolate and hemp seed slice
250g dates, pitted
20g cacao powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp vanilla extract
100g hemp seeds
100g coconut oil
40g cacao powder
30ml maple syrup
hemps seeds to decorate
1. Line a 22cm x 12cm loaf tin with baking paper.
2. Soak the dates in 2 cups of boiling water for 10 minutes. Drain.
3. Place the almonds in a food processor. Blend for about 30 seconds or until the almonds are crushed to around 2mm. Add the dates, 20g cacao, cinnamon and vanilla. Blend for about 10 seconds or until the mixture forms a coarse paste. Stir in the hemp seeds and press the mixture evenly into the loaf tin. Set aside.
4. Make the topping by melting the coconut oil over a double boiler then whisk in the remaining cacao powder and maple syrup. Pour over the base and refrigerate for several hours or until set. Sprinkle with hemp seeds, cut into squares and serve.
Serves about 12
Based on a recipe from Fair Foods developed by Wholesome Patisserie