Hemp cultivation as a solution for empty Spain

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hemp cultivation

JARANDILLA DE LA VERA – “Everything that creates new jobs is good for people”. Santiago Timón and Nicolas Puerto are trying to breathe new life into their increasingly sparsely populated region with hemp cultivation.

The area around Villanueva de la Vera at the foot of the Gredos Mountains east of Madrid and northwest of Cáceres is sloping but empty. Large rectangular drying sheds made of bricks dominate the landscape.

Hemp plantations are starting to pop up little by little in this area. It represents a sustainable opportunity to attract people to the region, which was previously dominated by the production of tobacco and paprika. Although it is a business niche that is hampered by legislation, Timón and Puerto experience Cannavera daily with their company. They tell their story in the newspaper El Mundo.

Sufficient water and a favourable climate

Thirteen hectares of cannabis replace the tobacco and pepper plantations that sprouted forty years earlier. Growing conditions are generally favourable due to water flows from the Gredos massif and the climate that is humid in winter and dry in summer. Tobacco and paprika were the economic engines of this aging region, which the younger generations cannot sustain. That is why many plantations are now empty.

Promotion of hemp cultivation

Santiago Timón and Nicolás Puerto want to combat the exodus of their region by promoting hemp cultivation. Their village Villanueva has only 2,026 inhabitants. They use the land of Santiago’s family and some other part that they rent. After the harvest in September, the plants are cut and hung for months in the drying rooms where the tobacco is used to dry.

Distrustful reactions

Renting land was initially difficult because of the mistrust of people. They have the wrong idea. Santiago: “You tell them you’re going to grow hemp and they think about drugs”. Nicolas gained experience in Switzerland where he studied hemp cultivation for almost ten years and worked in several greenhouses. Meanwhile, Santiago and Nicolás, with the help of 20 people, have already harvested 33 tons of hemp. This is converted into CBD oil and building material. All legal products with growing demand.

New jobs

Yet the enthusiasm for the endless possibilities that the product offers is gradually winning over the negative image. Mayor Antonio Caperote is also enthusiastic, particularly about the new jobs resulting from the hemp project. The fact that the population of Villanueva de la Vera has increased by 40 people over the past year bodes well. Especially considering the large number of residents who have left here in the past 30 years. Most of them worked in tobacco cultivation.

Tobacco cultivation in Extremadura

Spain is the third-largest tobacco-producing country in Europe after Italy and Poland. In Extremadura has almost the entire cultivation (98%). According to the industry’s annual report prepared by KPMG, the tobacco sector generates more than EUR 130 million in the region and more than 3,000 jobs.

Despite this, hegemony in the region is gradually declining. In the past 10 years, tobacco hectares have decreased by 1,747 hectares according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture of the Junta de Extremadura. The reason for a large exodus of young people to larger cities in search of work.

European support

For the time being, Europe supports hemp as a crop through the Common Agricultural Policy 2022-2025, says José Luis Llerena, director of the Extremadura Agri-Food Technology Center (CTAEX) and chairman of the Hemp Technological Pole. Beyond that boundary, the future looks hazy. According to Llerena, hemp is “the best supplement” as a solution for difficult tobacco cultivation.

Growth of over 500%

The cultivation of hemp is similar to that of tobacco, so the area already has an optimal infrastructure for processing it. That is why the hectares of hemp multiply annually in Extremadura. The regional government registered the first hemp plantation in 2013. As of 2018, the number increased by 520% from 4.43 hectares to 27.5 hectares last year.

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High investment required

One barrier, according to Puerto, is that a hemp plantation requires large investment due to the high cost of the seeds and the specialized staff. For their 10-acre plantation, they needed 200,000 seeds. An investment of 200,000 euros was required.

Legal and bureaucratic obstacles

This was followed by several legal and bureaucratic obstacles. Although cannabis as a whole has various uses and properties (cosmetic, medicinal, therapeutic, textile and food), those associated with the flower are the most profitable. The simple manipulation of this part of the plant, however, requires special authorisation from the Spanish Agency for Medicines and Health Products. Currently, only 22 scientific entities hold some of these permits.

Legislation needed to advance hemp cultivation

That is why some farmers end up sending the flowers from Spain to have them processed elsewhere. They get them back in a manipulable format. This has consequences for the profitability of the sector, according to CTAEX. “Extremadura has water, territory, and talent,” describes the centre’s director. “It just needs legislation to move it forward.”

The most prominent assets in cannabis are CBD and THC. Of the former, numerous studies have proven its therapeutic properties. The second is the psychoactive substance. This use is mostly recreational and often demonized and banned in much of the world.

Legal framework

The legal framework in Spain is mainly based on European regulations that change little by little. Until now, cannabis with a THC content of more than 0.2% was illegal. Below this limit is hemp. Hemp is used in CBD products, such as dietary supplements or oils, and the industrial production of fibres for fabrics, insulation, or construction material. According to a new resolution, the THC limit is 0,3% from January 2022.

Based on the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, it is not allowed to handle the flower of the plant, except with prior authorization from the Spanish Agency for Medicines and Health Products for medical or research reasons.

Lots of potential in Spain for hemp cultivation

Experts say Spain could be the main hemp producer due to weather and terrain conditions. “Not just in Europe, but in the world,” said Nicolás Puerto. Instead, “countries like Germany and Switzerland are catching up with us with higher production, more favourable legislation and worse weather conditions.”

For example, in 2020 France accounted for 41.6% of hemp production in Europe and Spain only 0.5% according to data from Faostat. “In Portugal, there is a big boom in medicinal hemp and they are currently building a lot of greenhouses. France grows hemp for industrial applications,” says Jose Luís Llerena.

Still, the sector is booming and the harvest has increased by 75% between 2015 and 2019, according to data from the European Commission. In addition, the increase in legal THC content to 0.3% is a new impulse for the sector.

Hemp as a replacement for plastic

From a sustainability perspective, the crop also offers even more opportunities. There are already people talking about hemp as a replacement for plastic and a boost for the regions hardest hit by depopulation.

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