A Christchurch company supplying premium wool yarn for high-end residential carpets and private jets is branching out to make sustainable products from hemp, the cannabis crop grown for industrial use.
Everything from Formula 1 race cars and America’s Cup boats to super strong, lightweight road racing bikes — Colin McKenzie believes anything made with carbon fibre could, one day, be produced more sustainably with material made from hemp fibre and bioresin.
But that’s in the future, once the technology and processes are refined.
First, the Carrfields Primary Wool Group chief executive is focused on other hemp products and setting up the NZ Yarn factory in Christchurch to process the plant. To do that, NZ Yarn needs to install and set up its hemp decorticator, a highly specialised machine imported from the United Kingdom which takes hemp stalks and separates them into fibre and hurd (the woody, inner part of the stalk).
“It’s like a start-up business. We’re on the ground floor of a brand-new industry in New Zealand,” McKenzie said.
“We’re very excited about hemp as a new industry, but also hemp and wool hybrid products, which aren’t being done globally.
NZ Yarn is majority owned by Carrfields Primary Wool, a joint-venture between Carrfields, a major national agri-tech company, and the Primary Wool Co-Operative, representing some 1400 sheep farmers around New Zealand.
As chief executive of the Carrfields wool group, McKenzie is also chief executive of NZ Yarn, a business which prides itself on producing premium, bespoke yarn products — 95 per cent of its orders are exported overseas, mostly for high-end residential soft flooring.
The business also has clients making carpets for private jets.
Commercial flights were largely grounded earlier in the year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, something McKenzie said led to an increase in the use of private aircraft. That flowed down to NZ Yarn, which saw an uptick in demand from its clients refurbishing and fitting out private jets in the United States.
“They refit them every three years,” McKenzie said.
The NZ Yarn factory in Christchurch receives about 5000 bales of wool a year and can produce as much as 1 million kilograms of yarn, most of which gets exported via Lyttelton Port.
The longstanding Christchurch business falls into the Food, Fibre and Agritech Supernode, one of four sectors identified by the city as driving growth and future innovation, something NZ Yarn epitomises in its work unlocking the potential of hemp.
So how did that happen?
In 2018, HempNZ, which describes itself as the largest hemp company in the country, bought into NZ Yarn; McKenzie said at the time HempNZ had been looking for a hemp fibre factory, and happened to be working with Carrfields looking at harvesting solutions for hemp.
“Carrfields obviously said ‘we have a fibre factory already in Christchurch’, and that’s how the two businesses came together.”
Since that serendipitous start, progress has been quick. Last year, McKenzie said Carrfields sourced hemp from 50-odd Canterbury farmers who, collectively, had grown about 1000 hectares of the crop. The backing from Carrfields put NZ Yarn in a unique position when it came to the New Zealand hemp industry, McKenzie said.
“We’re the only business that is end-to-end in terms of the supply chain and has got the scale to make a difference.”
NZ Yarn has been working with research partners the University of Canterbury and Auckland University of Technology (AUT) on product development, and is already trialing hemp fibre products such as geotextiles (used for things like land stabilisation and weed matting) and thermo packaging, which can be used in place of polystyrene to keep food cool.
The company aims to get the necessary equipment — including the decorticator, which can process two tons of hemp stalks an hour — set up within the next couple of months, with an eye to starting production before Christmas.
Other possible products include ‘hempcrete’, a building material made using hurd, apparel and — in the future — the substitute carbon fibre material.
“We’re not going to be just traders of hemp fibre,” McKenzie said.
“We’ll be partnering with like-minded companies on and offshore to add as much value as we can.”
Story as published by ChristchurchNZ