Cannabis is a Plant with Far Out Uses
The weird things farmers get up to these days
'The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust - almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented…'
This isn’t a recent statement from an impassioned eco-warrior or Friends of the Earth, but what Henry Ford, the man who revolutionised the motor industry, told a reporter over 80 years ago.
Years ahead of his time, Ford even built a car from cannabis. In the 1920s, Ford cars were built with hemp bodywork and some could even be powered by the oil from crushed hemp seeds.
Ford’s idea that ethyl alcohol could be the 'fuel of the future' soon faded behind the mammoth petro-chemicals industry. However, with fuel prices rising and the ever increasing threat of oil supplies running out, forward thinking businesses are re-visiting these ideas to see what they can offer today’s high paced and technology dependant society.
It’s not just multi-national companies but also a farmer-cum-entrepreneur in Waringstown, Co Down. 'From its very beginnings, farming has been all about harvesting energy,' says Michael Harnett. He uses the simple process of plants capturing and storing energy to his advantage.
Harnett grows hemp, linseed and oilseed rape on his farm, and turns a profit not just from harvesting these crops but by crushing the seeds to make an eco-friendly carbon neutral fuel. This can be used as a replacement for diesel, in so doing doubling the profit from the original crop. Further processing the oil doubles profits again with the final products being thick oils, marketed as eco-friendly chainsaw lubricant, concrete mould release oil and virgin oil.
As if quadrupling profits was not enough the left over waste from crushing the seeds can be used as a high protein animal feed, healthier than other products on the market. Not to mention the stems of the plants, which like most crops can be used for animal bedding and hundreds of other uses. Indeed, hemp fibres are so versatile and strong that BMW, following in Ford’s footsteps, now make their dashboards from it.
Harnett is one of many farmers across the province looking outside of food production as a source of income for their farms. The idea is hardly revolutionary. Only a generation ago flax was the main crop in Northern Ireland and still adorns Stormount notepaper as our national emblem.
A visionary man, Harnett sees farmers meeting Northern Ireland’s energy needs. He envisages each farm or group of farms having a generator which will supply electricity onto the grid. Harnett argues that because these generators can be turned on and off in line with demand, power can be generated in a matter of minutes, not the two hours it takes the lumbering giant generators of Kilroot. Such a scheme would also eradicate power cuts, like those due to high demand in Belfast in 2003.
Harnett sees farm generators not just powered by crushed oil seed rape but by willow, manure, and even grass. Literally anything that can decompose or burn can be used. If an efficient technology can be created for grass then the Emerald Isle will be glowing with an excess of electricity, surely lowering prices.
Even better, the only carbon released into the atmosphere will be that captured in the plant while growing, making the process ‘Carbon Neutral’. These ‘energy crops’ are therefore environmentally friendly and would even get the nod over wind power due to their reliability. Unfortunately the wind does not blow all the time, or at a constant speed! All problems for the grid.
This idea of farmers meeting our electricity and oil needs is one that ticks all the boxes. It is environmentally friendly, economically viable and will give a new lease of life to our struggling farmers. The EU are aware of the positives and it is already possible to gain grants with a very minimum of a £10 an acre bonus for a ‘renewable’ crop.
Despite our perception of Ireland being cold and wet the reality is that we have more sunlight hours than most of Europe. Combine that with our ample supply of rain and Ireland is one of the best suited locations for growing such crops. The much feared ‘Climate Change’ could actually make growing conditions even better if some predictions are to be believed.
So expect to see less ‘black and white’ countryside residents in favour of the yellow of oilseed rape and the lilac of linseed, growing beside sprouting willow trees, another carbon neutral fuel, already powering buildings like the new Omagh College.