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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 76

New Zealand Hemp

New Zealand Hemp.

I have the honour to place before you the result of my investigations concerning the New Zealand hemp industry. Under authority dated the 5th June, 1897, from the Hon. John McKenzie, Minister of Lands, I left Wellington on the 22nd July, 1897, proceeding by way of Auckland to Sydney, where I had the pleasure of waiting upon the Hon. the Minister of Agriculture, who kindly extended to me special facilities for inquiring into the development of fibre plants at the Hawkesbury College Farm. I found that only a limited area of ground was allotted to the cultivation of ramie, and, although the Principal of the college and Professor Musson expressed a special interest in that department of their work, they could not afford any reliable information as to the commercial value of ramie fibre. Professor Musson very kindly procured for me a few plants grown on the farm. These I immediately forwarded to the Secretary of the Agricultural Department, at Wellington. Returning to Sydney, I visited all the rope-and cordage-makers in the city and surrounding districts. Many of the manufacturers complained of the lack of uniformity in our hemp.

To Messrs. A. Forsyth and Co., rope-makers, of Sydney, I am indebted for some valuable information. Mr. Forsyth accompanied me to his works, and explained the difficulties his firm experienced in ordering certain classes of New Zealand hemp. As an illustration of these difficulties he pointed to several brands varying in colour and preparation, although bought under the same classification, and shipped from the one port. He strongly urged the importance of a general grading system, and the advantages to be gained by the adoption of a standard size of bale, as in the case of manila, which is always packed in two piculs, each bale weighing 2½ cwt., and universally accepted at eight bales to the ton, thereby avoiding the cost of handling and reweighing. He, however, advocated an increased weight for New Zealand hemp, stating that 3½cwt. bales would be a most suitable size. This opinion was confirmed by the other rope-and cordage-makers, all of whom evinced the deepest interest in my work, and promised extended orders for New Zealand fibre.

Going overland to Melbourne, I called upon the Acting-Premier, the Hon. I. A. Isaacs, who expressed a wish to assist my investigations. To the Hon. Minister for Agriculture I am indebted for special facility in travelling throughout the colony. Mr. Martin, Secretary of the department, offered every assistance he could, and informed me of the experiments made by the Agricultural Department in its endeavours to raise ramie, for which he thought the climate and soil of Victoria was suitable. He is, however, of opinion that only two crops can be obtained in a year, as against four crops in India. Mr. Martin referred to the difficulty of getting suitable machinery for decorticating the fibre and preparing it for market. I was able to show him the varied samples of manufactured material made from ramie-fibre prepared by the Rhea Fibre Treatment Company (Limited), under what is known as the "Gomess process."

Visiting the works of James Miller and Co., Melbourne, and Messrs. Donaghy and Sons, of Geelong, I had the advantage of seeing and hearing the objections raised by practical men to our hemp. These were chiefly based on the same lines as expressed by Messrs. Forsyth and Co. Messrs. Donaghy and Sons, however, informed me that it was their desire to use as much as possible of New Zealand fibre, providing they could in future depend upon a continuity of a standard quality, especially as to colour and preparation. They informed me that, wherever introduced, the binder-twine made from New Zealand hemp gave the utmost page 3 satisfaction; other difficulties, however, existed in increasing its consumption. Here it is instructive to learn that manufacturers sell to merchants binder-twine made from manila and New Zealand hemp. Such sales are made on a basis of 10 per cent, discount or commission. Manila being the dearer of the two, preference is given to push its sale with the consumer, for the obvious reason that 10 per cent, on manila at 5¼d. per pound is better than the same commission on New Zealand hemp at 3¾d. per pound. Notwithstanding the fact that manila is longer to the pound weight, still there is a large saving in favour of the use of New Zealand hemp twine. The smaller rope-makers in Victoria expressed a wish to have a standard bale and a more uniform colour, which latter is essential to the successful manufacture of clothes-lines, halters, and plough-reins.

Continuing my overland journey to South Australia, I visited Adelaide, where I was cordially received by the Hon. Dr. Cockburn, Minister for Agriculture, who generously assisted me in every possible way. Upon inquiry I found that no fibre was raised in that colony for export or manufacturing purposes. Visiting the rope-works in the city, I ascertained that the objection raised by the mill-managers was directed towards the "towy" appearance of the fibre, due to want of care in "stripping" the green blade. Complaints were also made of the lack of uniformity in colour and preparation. As an instance of this, they pointed to two lots of the same brand of hemp bought at the same time, but shipped from New Zealand at intervals of one month. Both parcels varied considerably in stripping, scutching, and bleaching.

Learning that South Africa was importing American binder-twine and other cordage, and that there was a prospect of extending trade with that colony, on the principle that "the path of duty is the path of safety," I altered my plans, and took passage in the s.s. "Culgoa," the first steamer sailing for Cape Town. Upon my arrival I called upon the principal ironmongers in the city, who, although they had never previously heard of binder-twine made from New Zealand hemp, promised to send some trial orders to the colony for the following season's supplies. I have reason to believe that these have since gone forward to the colony.

Arriving in London on the 28th October, I immediately set to work prosecuting my inquiries anent the hemp industry. I found no little difficulty in obtaining reliable information, and experienced some opposition in my endeavours to procure the best evidence. While there appeared to be a desire to assist me in eliciting the information I sought, at the outset there existed some doubt as to how far it was wise to disclose fuller details. I had very many interviews before my would-be helpers felt Assured that I had no desire to upset or interfere in any way with the present system of conducting the fibre trade.

In my earlier visits to gentlemen interested in the imports I was astonished to hear nothing but eulogiums about the excellent quality of New Zealand hemp. For some time these praises were bestowed upon our fibre; but when I ventured to suggest that the diminishing demand—apart altogether from the falling prices—did not exhibit that appreciation of the improved quality referred to, I was met with the instructive answer that if New Zealand would send regular standard qualities, and would sell subject to the usual arbitration clause upon which manila and sisal fibres were bought, there would be a largely increasing demand for New Zealand hemp.

I had the pleasure of interviewing several rope-makers, urging the claims of New Zealand hemp. I elicited various recommendations, and I many promises that future orders would embrace the colony, not withstanding the fact that the "spot stocks" had decreased from 1,500 tons on the 30th September, 1896, to 1,073 tons on the 30th September, 1897, page 4 which were still further reduced to 926 tons on the 30th November, 1897, There was little or no sale for several months prior to my arrival, the nominal market values ranging from £13 10s. to £14, c.i.f., London.

It is with pleasure I point to the improved prices that have since taken place. Messrs. W. F. Malcolm and Co., reporting upon New Zealand, under date the 21st March, says, inter alia, " The market is exceedingly firm, and holders are asking £20 for parcels on spot." It will I am sure be a matter of satisfaction to you to know that cash-buying orders for many hundreds of tons of hemp have been cabled to New Zealand during the present year, the prices offered being in excess of quotations prevailing for a long period before.