HEMP INDUSTRY PREPARES TO GROW
As more and more Fortune 500 companies monitor hemps legal progress, start-ups are pushing the envelope of product development and markets.
Hemp is a crop with a long industrial history. Better known as cannabis, the Latin root of the word canvas, the plant has been the source of food, fiber and fuel for the past 10,000 years. Yet, after 60 years of obsolescence, hemp is finally enjoying a commercial renaissance.
The attributes of hemp read like an ad mans dream: It thrives without herbicides, reinvigorates the soil, requires less water than cotton, matures in three to four months, and can potentially yield four times as much paper per acre as trees. Not only that, it can create building materials that are twice as strong as wood and concrete, textile fiber that is stronger than cotton, better oil and paint than petroleum, clean-burning diesel fuel, biodegradable plastics, and more digestible protein per acre than any other food source.
In 1937, Popular Mechanics magazine declared hemp to be the New Billion Dollar Crop because of new developments in fiber decortication technology. Last year, the Wall Street Journal projected that worldwide sales of hemp in 1999 will reach $250 million. Thats only $750 million shy of the Popular Mechanics projection 60 years earlier, but at least it shows progress. As more and more Fortune 500 companies are monitoring hemps legal progress, start-ups are pushing the envelope of product development.
DEDICATED FOLLOWERS OF FASHION
When the hemp industry was in its infancy, the extent of hemp apparel was limited to thick, rough fabric poorly sown into baggy, shapeless garments, most of which was only available in natural colors. Todays hemp textiles come in beautiful blends of silk, wool, rayon, nylon, flax and that old standby, cotton. At any given hemp store, one can find high-quality clothes, hats, shoes, belts, bags, jewelry, linens, furniture, and rugs that are built to last.
Years ago, the hemp industry nearly committed sepeku by foisting poor quality fabric products at high prices on the public, says Rich Morrissey of Jus Naturale, a garment maker based in Seattle. That gave consumers a bad image of hemp.
Morrissey says things have changed thanks to significant innovations made in China, the worlds largest producer of hemp fabrications. To meet the demand of Europe, the biggest consumer of hemp goods, Chinas government has devoted substantial funds toward the development of subspecies of hemp that produce finer, more durable fibers. The new fibers are more uniform and do not produce the slubs seen in past generations of fabric.
These new plants from China have given hemp a range of fabrics not seen before, and the prices are even going down, observes Morrissey. My own business has tripled in the past year due to the quality of these fibers. In 1999, Jus Naturale has seen a tremendous upsurge in orders from catalogs, chain stores and marketing companies, and most recently they completed an order from a Fortune 200 company that last year, notes Morrissey wouldnt have touched us.
Next year, Jus Naturale will introduce a womens line of knitted sweat shirts and pants made with 69 percent hemp and 31 percent cotton that will have a consistent quality, as well as having a high level of breathability and durability. The company has also developed a new, 5-pocket jean using unique yard-dyed, enzyme washed, 100 percent hemp denim fabric.
HEMP IN THE HOME
Hemp fibers are being made into a number of materials for use in and around the home. One very accessible use of hemp is in the area of carpeting. Traditionally, wool is the finest natural fiber geared toward carpeting due to its crimping ability. While hemp doesnt crimp as well, it is abrasion resistant and has excellent dye receptors.
Earth Weave Carpet Mills is the brainchild of two native sons of the carpet business that surrounds them in Dalton, Georgia. James and Eric Stinnet have carpet backing in their blood, so when they struck out in 1997 to start their own operation, making environmentally friendly floor covering, one of the first fibers they considered using was hemp. We wanted to get a head start on the market by getting products out there, explains James Stinnet, whose target market is the environmentally sensitive.
Earth Weave sales have doubled every year by distributing to environmental building centers, interior designers and contractors. We get lots of requests from dealers working on specific jobs requiring floor covering that has no off-gassing, he says.
Earth Weave carpets are 100 percent sustainable, renewable and biodegradable. The company also uses flax, cotton, jute and wool in the production of their broadloom and area rugs. The hemp fiber is currently being imported from China, although the Stinnets eagerly await the time when Canadas production lines come up to speed.
The most important thing is to keep the price competitive with natural fibers and wool, notes Stinnet. At this time, the cost of hemp is 50 percent more than the highest quality wool.
Price is always the issue with hemp, which by all rights, is a premium fiber. High cost is partly attributed to the fact that the United States has no domestic supply, and manufacturers must cover shipping and importation costs. The fiber is also especially tough and requires intense production to turn out finest fibers. Since the industry is still young, cost-saving factors such as economies-of-scale have not yet kicked in.
The Canadians are promising savings, but Im skeptical, observes Stinnet. We need to bring the price down before interest in hemp fades.
FOOD FOR THE SOUL
Perhaps the biggest potential for the hemp plant is as a source of food. When it comes to nutrition, nothing gets a higher rating than hemp seed. This little package is jam-packed with essential fatty acids, Gamma Linoleic Acids, protein, calcium, iron and zinc as well as vitamins E, C, and B that does as much for your insides as it does for your skin. Hemp seed can be pressed for oil, pounded into cake, pulverized for flour, or simply eaten whole.
Although hemp seed alone doesnt contain any THC, the plant matter that can to stick to them does, and years ago it received a bad rap after causing a few positive drug tests in hemp consumers. Nowadays, hemp food manufacturers have cleaned up their act and are producing new lines of health foods that are capable of building immunities and protecting our hearts.
No one has been more innovative with hemp foods than Richard Rose, president of Rella Good Cheese Company and producers of HempNut. Using a patent-pending dehulling process, the hard outer shell of the hemp seed is removed, yielding a delicious seed similar to sesame seed in appearance, and pine nuts or sunflower in taste. HempNut can be sprinkled on salads, cooked into pastries, creamed into milk or scooped from its vacuum sealed container.
Before HempNut, people were eating hemp seed just like birds do, that is, with the outer shell, says Richard Rose, founder and president of Santa Rosa, California-based HempNut, Inc. Not only is the outer shell dirty and not very tasty, it contains microscopic amounts of THC, which is not enough to get high on, but is just enough to flunk a drug test.
New tests have shown that dehulled hemp seed is 40 percent more nutritious than whole hemp seed. The best part is that its very high in Essential Fatty Acids (good fat), and higher in protein than beef, fish and poultry. The amino acid profile of HempNut is superior to soybean, human milk and cows milk, and similar to egg white.
HempNut Inc. has recently introduced HempNutButter, which contains hemp seed and organic dry roasted Valencia peanuts and sea salt. Rose projects at least 50 percent growth annually for HempNut, Inc., and is planning to launch 14 new HempNut products by the end of 1999, including cheese, veggie burgers, chocolate, snack chips, energy bars and drinks.
In order for the industry to really take off, there needs to be greater availability of the raw material at more competitive prices. For that to occur, regulations need to be relaxed and major capital must be invested in processing infrastructure.
There is still one final hurdle the hemp industry faces in the United States: the law. The federal government does not distinguish industrial hemp from marijuana, and thus, farming of hemp is prohibited. Although the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act allowed for cultivation of hemp with a license, the Drug Enforcement Agency has made it financially unfeasible, if not impossible, to obtain a permit and grow hemp.
Some say that the problem could be easily alleviated by changing the United States Code under Drug Abuse Prevention and Control with the insertion of the words, hemp with less than one percent of THC, into a list of exempted substances that includes tobacco and alcohol.
In 1999, eight states North Dakota, Hawaii, Illinois, Virginia, New Mexico, Minnesota, Montana, and most recently, California have enacted some kind of pro-hemp legislation. However, states rights are superseded by federal law and would-be hemp farmers from these states will still need to apply for necessary permits.
Once both federal and state hemp laws are changed, bigger companies will feel comfortable getting involved, financial investment will be forthcoming, and hemp will finally become, as Popular Mechanics magazine foretold, the new billion dollar crop.
Written by: EcoMall
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