In Essonne, the Gâtichanvre hemp processing cooperative is in the throes of serious financial difficulties. It has until February to find either a buyer or state support, on pain of going out of business. And through this, a halt to the hemp industry in the department. An apparent paradox in a rapidly growing sector. And an illustration of the delicate transition to an industrial scale.
The company was founded by farmers from the Gâtinais Regional Natural Park (Essonne). At the end of the 2000s, the management of the park was looking to develop a new economic sector in the region. It finally financed an experiment in the cultivation of hemp, which in 2013 led to the creation of a company, led by six growers.
“We wanted to develop a sector in the field of energy transition, remembers Jean-Jacques Boussaingault, founding president of the Gâtinais regional park. However, hemp can be used in the design of eco-materials. The objective is therefore twofold: to find an additional source of income for the region’s farmers while benefiting from the increasing use of hemp in areas with high added value.
In the field of construction, the fiber of the plant can be used for the manufacture of hemp concrete, as well as insulation but also in plastics, its properties allowing to reduce the weight of certain parts, in particular in industry. automobile. It is also used in the design of textiles, the manufacture of food and cosmetic oils, or animal bedding.
At the same time, the industry boasts an interesting plant from an agronomic point of view. It does not require irrigation or phytosanitary products and is considered a good “rotational head”: a plant which, placed in rotation with other crops, improves the quality of the soil.
“An entry ticket to three million euros”
Until 2018, more than a hundred farmers started producing hemp, which they sold to Gâtichanvre. As the hemp had to be transformed into fiber or shavings to be used, the company first outsourced this transformation to a cooperative in Vendée. She then decided to embark on the transformation herself.
“This is where the trouble started, says Arnaud Charpentier, director of Gâtichanvre, who joined the company at the end of 2017. The entry ticket for a transformation line is high: between 3 and 4 million euros. “ In 2016, Gâtichanvre managed to find a used machine. But the technical problems multiplied and the reassembly of the line was delayed. In the end, it was never operational.
“It processed 0.8 tonnes per hour at most, while production was expected to be 1.5 tonnes per hour, explains Arnaud Charpentier. The quality was not there either and we were not able to approach the markets with high added value. “
The debts have piled up. Since April 2019, Gâtichanvre has been the subject of a conciliation mechanism. In December 2019, it stopped production, the time to find a buyer. In the meantime, all of its production has been sold. Arnaud Charpentier cowardly: “The customers are there but the cash registers are empty. “
The company has until February to find a solution. “If nothing is found, it will be the end of the course in the department, says Arnaud Charpentier. What saddens us is that the farmers could not be paid. “ The department’s agricultural work companies – which rent equipment from farmers – had also invested in specific equipment.
The firm lacks 1.9 million euros to get off to a good start. The managers would have found a service provider to finally make the production line operational. According to the director, the financial balance could be found for 2023. The region is ready to invest € 800,000, the department has offered to buy the production site to rent it at an advantageous rate. There was also talk of state participation. This remains pending for the time being.
Today, two scenarios are being studied: either a rescheduling of debts, or the reception of an investor who would become a majority stakeholder. In 2020, several investors had signaled their interest, before retracting. Arnaud Charpentier recognizes this: “The Covid has been there. “
An emerging sector
Cultivated since Neolithic times, threatened with extinction in France after World War II – there were 500 hectares in 1960 – hemp has experienced a resurgence of interest since the early 2000s. In 2017, according to the interprofession, hemp was cultivated by 1,500 farmers on 17,000 hectares.
Based in Aube, La Chanvrière, which supplies 50% of French hemp and a third of European production, has invested 20 million euros in the construction of a new processing plant in Saint-Lié, north of Troyes, open since February 2020. It wants to double its production capacities to reach 100,000 tons per year