With any luck most will have made at least a bit of headway with getting some of this year’s crop in, as everything is thrown at the job in a last-ditch effort to make the most of the all too rare (and late) interludes of drier weather.

But the sheer hassle of getting them in the ground, together with what are still lacklustre grain prices, has more than likely had many growers looking at alternative and novel crops.

But, reading some clippings from a selection of old agricultural publications which were kindly sent to me by the Day family from their impressive agricultural archive, it’s obvious that this isn’t anything new – and that farmers have been keen to look into cultivating different and new species in the hope of finding a more profitable harvest since time immemorial.

Change of crop

Even the government was keen to suggest some new crops during the big agricultural depression which the country suffered back in the 1880s and 90s – when a policy of promoting free trade together with the advent of efficient rail transport, faster shipping and refrigeration saw our home market swamped with imports of grain from the US and Canada, together with beef and lamb from around the world (a situation which sounds worryingly familiar to 21st-century growers operating in the post-Brexit world...)

One of the more surprising new enterprises to be advocated to Britain’s farmers at that time was the growing of tobacco – with discussions in both the Houses of Lords and the Commons at the turn of the 19th century suggesting that the removal of the effective ban on growing the crop could offer a profitable alternative to poorly paying cereal farming.

Tobacco fields

I was surprised to learn that tobacco had actually been grown in the UK in the past – and apparently it had been with reasonable success as far north as the Scottish Borders and even up into Fife.

While the crop was introduced from America about the same time as potatoes, 1660 saw a royal decree made by King Charles II which effectively banned the growing of the crop in the UK, a move which stopped it reaching the same level of cultivation as was attained by the humble spud.

Brief changes in the rules around 1830, however, saw the crop make a bit of a resurgence in both Ireland and Scotland, but before it could be more widely established it was again banned until the government began to review this legislation towards the end of the century.

However, it wasn’t long before the advent of the First World War and the need to grow as much food as possible saw the development of this agronomic crop stymied once again as a firm focus was placed on growing edible crops to help feed the nation.

But the legislative hurdles have parallels with the situation in another crop which at one time figured as one of the more widely grown in the country.

Because some recent research work has been looking at the commercial growing of hemp – and while the emphasis was previously on its use as a fibre for sailcloth and rope making during Britain’s heyday as a seafaring nation – its recent recognition as a bit of a superfood with excellent environmental credentials has seen some considerable effort to assess if it could again be grown.

Too close for comfort

As hinted, though, one factor has been hampering the adoption of hemp as a crop – and this is due to the fact that it is closely related to the cannabis plant – and despite being devoid of any psychoactive substances, it has been covered by a set of tight licensing rules which necessitates a pre-registration of the area to be grown along with a stipulation as to whether it is for seed or fibre production – a requirement which can stifle any flexibility in cropping plans.

However, earlier this month there was a rethink on the government’s part – and, while still to be regulated, the conditions of the licences are now more flexible.

Licence to grow

According to feedback provided by the industry, the current licence application process had been putting many potential growers off, but the proposed new licensing regime is aimed at being more accessible and fair.

Under the planned changes, licence-holders will be able to grow hemp anywhere on a licensed farm and the maximum period for a licence will be extended from three to six years.

Growers will have the option to apply for a licence with a deferred start date of up to a year, which will allow growers to plan a hemp crop into their rotation and order seed in good time, with the changes due to come into force for the 2025 growing season.

For the types of hemp being looked at by researchers in Scotland, one of the main products being considered is oil from the hemp seed, with the cold-pressed variety producing a high level of healthy omega fatty acids – meaning hemp oil offers considerable health benefits over both rapeseed and virgin olive oil.

The meal left after crushing has also been shown to be a good source of protein for livestock, being suitable for cattle and poultry – with current trials testing its ability to replace soya meal in egg production, a move which would give the additional benefit of higher omega fatty acids in the eggs.

Dr Madalina Neacsu of the Rowett Institute, who has been involved in the trials, also told me that not only is the crop well suited to growing in the Scottish climate but that it also has a very low requirement for inputs – meaning it holds out the promise of being a climate-resilient crop suitable for Scottish agriculture.

While saying it had the ability to grow like a ‘weed’ might be provocative, its ability to grow to two metres tall in around 120 days, while at the same time needing very little (or indeed nothing) in the way of fertilisers or pesticides, has also seen it being positioned as a carbon-capturing plant which can help reduce emissions and play its part in helping cropping farms move towards net zero.

And the ability to key into markets for low-carbon foods offers the possibility of worthwhile premiums with Scottish Government-funded consumer studies which are currently running showing that bread made from hemp flour – and even hemp milk and oil – are already proving to be acceptable to consumers while also offering the added benefits of essential amino acids along with fibre levels which can help curb hunger and therefore tendencies towards overeating.

Replacing coconuts

Dr Neacsu said that trials led by The Rowett Institute into uses for hemp straw have shown that it can provide an excellent growing media for soft fruit grown in polytunnels and for crops grown in vertical farming, in the efforts to replace coir (coconut fibre)which is currently exclusively imported.

Considerable interest has also been expressed in using hemp as a major constituent in building insulation, with the performance of hemp board offering a good alternative to that derived from fossil fuel sources.

Another considerable plus point in the crop’s favour is the fact that it can be both grown and harvested with normal farm machinery and requires no specialist equipment or facilities for handling and storage.

On top of this, anecdotal evidence also pointed to some considerable soil benefits from the crop, with several growers involved in trials stating that crops following hemp achieved a considerable boost – and this has led to a small pilot trial looking at soil ‘health’ following the growth of hemp and the data gleaned could lead to the possibility larger trials which could help guide future policy decisions.

Maybe there’s hope for hemp out there…