In August, Oregon became the seventh state to legalize the growing and processing of hemp. The new law is largely symbolic because a federal law banning all forms of cannabis supersedes it, but it also represents a growing movement toward bringing back domestic production of a plant with a long history of industrial uses. Certainly there is money in marijuana, industrial hemp’s naughty cousin. But what about industrial hemp, the stuff of rope, not dope?
A dozen Oregon companies import hemp from countries where it is grown legally to make everything from massage lotion and dresses to hemp nut butter and ice cream. Most of these businesses are small, home-based outfits, but several, such as Living Harvest of Portland and Merry Hempsters of Eugene, have proven that the hemp market has serious potential. In fact, Living Harvest is one of the state’s most dynamic small companies, growing from eight employees in 2007 to 15 in 2008 while boosting revenues to nearly $5 million. Living Harvest CEO Hans Fastre expects sales to grow another 40% or 50% this year as more stores start carrying his hemp milk, frozen treats and protein powder.
Living Harvest imports 2 million pounds of hemp seeds from Canada each year. Because of drug laws, the seeds must be de-hulled using a process Fastre calls “inefficient and tedious” to ensure they will not be sprouted. Fastre is trying to convince the feds to allow him to import whole seeds or, better yet, to use locally grown seeds.
“Why not stimulate the economy by bringing a new crop into the state?” Fastre asks. “We would love to spend our money locally.”
Dena Purich, founder of Earthbound Creations of Eugene, agrees. She started her hemp clothing business in 2007 and saw her sales triple in 2008. She buys thousands of yards of hemp fabric through a Colorado company that imports in bulk from China, but she says, “In an ideal world everything would be done here in Oregon.”
“It would certainly save time and money and hassle,” says Gerry Shapiro, president of Merry Hempsters, a 10-employee enterprise in Eugene that converts Canadian hemp oil into salves and lip balm.
Shapiro has been in the hemp business since 1994, and he’s confident he’ll do fine with or without local materials. “Either way, we’ll be in business,” he says. “I just think it’s ridiculous that we can’t grow it here.”