HEMP GAINING RESPECTABILITY
It Can't Get You High But The First Industrial Crop Of 'Cannabis Sativa' In 60 Years Has Farmers Abuzz
PORT PERRY - Hemp has the potential to become as important in the next century as plastics have been in this one. The blossoming could have a huge economic impact on farmers, who this year are harvesting the province's first industrial hemp crop in 60 years.
Laurie Scott, the 37-year-old president of Hempology( proper name? )based in Port Perry, is touting the wonder weed as the consumer-savvy green product of the new millennium.
Give an ear to Scott and you'll hear that hemp is an environmentally friendly miracle crop that's going to save our endangered planet and make her newly established company a bushel of money.
``The goal is to mainstream hemp across Canada. Our mandate is to sell to intelligent retailers,'' explains Scott of her one-woman company.
She founded Hempology last June with $10,000 in start-up capital provided by a silent partner. Hempology wholesales Canadian-manufactured hemp products - bags, beauty products, foodstuffs and clothing - mostly in the GTA.
``Hemp is a premium natural product. I have to educate consumers about hemp's value - its durability, strength, and earth friendliness,'' she says. ``The percentage of environmentally conscious market share ( today ) is minuscule.''
Industrial hemp is a cousin of the cannabis sativa plant - marijuana? - - whose buds are well known for their popular - and illegal - mildly hallucinogenic qualities.
Health Canada's new regulations, which went into effect March 13 after Ottawa passed the new Controlled Substance and Abuse Act in 1996, permit commercial cultivation of hemp by licence holders. The first 1,200 hectares of Ontario farmland are now being harvested.
``This is the beginning of an agricultural revolution,'' says Scott. ``I want to be a part of it.''
But so far she has found the anti-marijuana bias - coupled with the difficulty of getting any product line onto the crowded desk of a purchasing agent for a major store - has meant slower sales. After three months of 60-hour weeks, she has sold $30,000 worth of products. Her profit has been a meagre 10 per cent.
There is no question that hemp has a plethora of industrial usages and offers many advantages over its equivalents. But, as students learn in Marketing 101, the superior Beta VCR technology lost out to the inferior parallel VHS system. Having a better mousetrap is no guarantee the world will beat a path to one's door.
Scott is hoping that, over time, Canadian-grown hemp will replace imports from China, Romania and Hungary, and lead to the popularization of so-far uncommon hemp products.
Her first multi-store contract was with Hikers Haven, a chain of six outfitters with stores in Toronto, Oakville, London, Kitchener, Guelph and Markham, which purchased a wide selection of Hempology's product lines.
These include knapsacks and bags trimmed with recycled vegan material that looks and feels like leather manufactured in Halifax by Haversack; and a health and beauty line including skin moisturizers, massage oils, specialty soaps, lip balms, manufactured by Earth Scents of Simcoe, Ont., a five-year-old company that also private labels for several related businesses including Hempola in Mississauga.
A third line is food products such as hemp seed protein bars, all naturally sweetened with honey and brown sugar in flavours including espresso chocolate, sun flower and ``hot, hot spicy seeds'' that has a bite comparable to a jalapeo pepper, manufactured by Mama Indica in Tofino, B.C.
As well, Hikers Haven purchased a unisex clothing line of jeans, cargo shorts, cargo pants, shirts and skirts manufactured by Spirit Stream in Hamilton, Ont. ``Hemp is perceived as being hippie wear for 18 to 25 year olds, and really the price dictates a more sophisticated market,'' explains Scott. ``Hemp isn't just canvass. Hemp blends with silk or wool make it as versatile a fabric as any, including synthetics.''
Scott has been contracted to train Hikers Haven's staff about the benefits of hemp in advance of their Christmas promotion.
Other key clients are the Big Carrot Natural Food Market on the Danforth and Bart Leather which has two outlets in Yorkville.
Sporting Life is negotiating with Scott to add the Spirit Stream product line to their Spring '99 collection, as well as Earth Scents.
Scott has found hemp socks knitted by Canadian Hemp Textiles in Campbellville, Ont. have proven popular with eco- and health food stores.
The company imported nine tonnes of hemp from China last year. Due to government licensing, there still won't be enough Ontario-grown hemp this summer to meet their demand.
Scott says the Hudson's Bay Company has given an outright no to her proposal to lease space at The Bay's flagship Queen Street department store.
``The irony here is that the Hudson's Bay Company had a hemp farm at their Red River settlement in 1833 to capture the booming market for hemp ropes, canvas and sails.
The farm failed because of the rudimentary harvesting and processing technology,'' says Scott, who has been in professional sales for a decade after working with the developmentally challenged for 10 years.
Other mainstream retailers have been similarly disinterested. ``Roots told me their consumer was not `intelligent enough' to buy eco-responsible goods,'' Scott continues.
Scott has had more success selling to privately owned health food stores, organic markets, environmental stores like Grass Roots on Bloor Street West and Earthly Goods on the Danforth.
Having had so many doors closed in her face, Scott has refined her market strategy.
She is currently negotiating to sell hemp chips manufactured by Hempline in Delaware, Ont. to Windfield Farms north of Oshawa, one of in North America's most famous equestrian stables.
The premium horse bedding alternative to straw, peat moss or wood chips is dust-free, thus eliminating the cause of allergies.
Highly absorbent, it reduces stable odour of ammonia from equine urine. Hemp bedding is used by Queen Elizabeth for her royal stables, notes Scott.
Another new niche market is gardening. Scott recently began selling hemp chips as garden mulch. She is negotiating for spring '99 sales with several major nurseries.
``All my hemp products are manufactured in Canada. It's important that we manufacture hemp goods here, and not just be a supplier of raw goods to mills elsewhere.
I envision that in 10 years hemp clothing will be in every quality fashion outlet in Canada, and that hemp oil will be as prevalent as aloe vera is today in health and beauty products,'' she says.
Competition to Hempology's sales is coming from The Body Shop, which is launching its own brand of five organic hemp oil products at a news conference tomorrow.
The skincare moisturizers, which utilize Saskatchewan hemp provided by Toronto's R&D Hemp, were launched in the U.S. and UK in June. Scott's ultimate goal is to open a hemp specialty store in Toronto. She's even named it The House That Hemp Built.
``It is the only plant that can house, clothe and feed us.''
Apparently you can also drink hemp, after it has been used to make beer. On Oct. 16, as part of the New Brew Festival, Toronto's Say What Cafe will introduce a cream ale made from the plant.
But farmers will have to resolve infrastructure problems in selling their raw hemp. At present, there is no central hemp marketing agency analogous to the Canadian Wheat Board.
The crop's association with marijuana remains a problem. Is hemp just a backdoor approach for the legalization of marijuana? Definitely not, explains Scott.
``The more hemp is grown legally, the greater the likelihood of cross-pollination with illicit marijuana fields, thus lowering their THC level. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the active mood-altering ingredient in marijuana.
``And since the hemp fields are carefully tested for their THC content by Health and Welfare Canada agents before harvesting, the chance of cross-pollination with illegal pot fields or farmers slipping in a few rows of the banned plants among their similar looking hemp sisters is slim.''