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  • Writer's pictureAriff Azmi

Medicinal cannabis: Growing Australia's next big export

While federal regulations governing the cultivation and manufacture of medicinal cannabis are still months away, a farm in north west New South Wales is ready and waiting to become the first to grow Australia's first crop.

Nestled in the Peel Valley, near Tamworth, DanEden is 47 hectares of fertile river-front country.

The property was bought by not-for-profit charity and patient advocacy group United in Compassion - a group established by the Haslam family, whose son Dan's battle with cancer contributed to the push to legalise medicinal cannabis in Australia.

Lucy Haslam believes it could be the start of a whole new industry for Australian agriculture.

She said she was keen to see Australia take a slice of the $250 billion global cannabis pie.

"We see this as a great opportunity for a great Australian primary industry," Ms Haslam said.

"Why would we sit back and let foreign companies come into Australia and do what we can do with ourselves?

"We will do more for Australian patients than foreign-controlled investors."

Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce agreed.

He said Australian farmers had the skills, technology and expertise to "be at the forefront of this industry".

"It would be a travesty if the fruits of our labour are only to be recognised in the import of a product from another country benefitting farmers from somewhere else," Mr Joyce said.

"Let's make sure they're our farmers."

The Holy Grail

The international agronomist who will oversee what could be Australia's first crop in Tamworth said farming conditions in northern NSW were perfect for the crop's growth.

Seamus said cannabis producing companies overseas were very interested in an Australia industry "because they know the potential we have here to grow a world standard crop".

"Australia has the potential to lead the world here on exactly what cannabis is supposed to be and exactly how it's supposed to be produced - outdoors in the sun, naturally," he said.

"This is the Holy Grail. There's an absolutely huge export market.

"Australia is the only country that can grow every type of variety under the sun."

While much of the world's cannabis crops are grown indoors under lights, natural sunlight encourages the most effective production of the chemicals most of use to patients.

These terpenes are the major components of cannabis' essential oils, which are responsible for cannabis' aroma and flavours.

While tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the most widely known active chemical in cannabis, it's by no means the only one.

"THC is just one of the many compounds in cannabis. It's more like an engine. We need it in there but we need some of the other components in there too," Seamus said.

"Just because one variety has a higher amount of THC in it, it does not necessarily mean it is a better variety than another.

"And that's why, when you start to extract the THC or break it down to one molecule, it's nowhere near as effective as what it is when it's a complete plant extract."

Seamus said one medicinal cannabis variety does not fix all patients.

"Everybody is different. A type of variety that you can find extremely effective for you mightn't be so effective for me. That's where custom medication is going to come into this."

Farming cannabis

At peak production at the Tamworth farm, Seamus estimated one tonne of cannabis flowers could be harvested from one acre.

The flowers are then processed and would yield 10 per cent of extractable oil for use in patient treatments.

It's anticipated between 10 and 15 varieties will be grown in Tamworth, both in greenhouses and in-field.

"That'll be drastically increased once we can start up a breeding program here correctly," Seamus said.

The plant's heads or flowers will be harvested by hand and at the end of the growing season the plants will be cut down and mulched.

"We go out there with saws because you're looking at trunks that can be 10 inches thick so it's more like a tree than a plant," Seamus said.



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