"Rope, not dope" was my slogan some years back, when I was involved in a successful campaign (yes, we do win some battles) to legalize industrial hemp in Canada.
My eye was on the 25,000 industrial products hemp was thought to offer, a farm-friendly, pesticide-free, green source for everything from clothing to rope to paper to plastic.
It never occurred to me that food would be first out of the gate once the plant was legalized.
But it did occur to Greg Herriott, who was then running a design shop that had just won acclaim for producing a reusable takeout coffee cup.
Herriott understood that paper, clothing and plastic are volume businesses. Manufacturers won't switch inputs until they can be guaranteed a continuous and reliable supply. So the place to start ramping up the volume of the hemp supply was food, he figured.
Food products are small-scale, niche-friendly and offer a base for independent entrepreneurs who can substitute sweat and chutzpah for equity a gateway industry, so to speak.
As soon as he tasted some hemp oil in 1993, Herriott was hooked. "It was a no-brainer, since it could work itself into gourmet and health circles," he said, referring to the rich store of essential fatty acids and antioxidants that make hemp oil an alternative to flax and fish oils, the latter not an option for vegans or those concerned about mercury contamination.
But back in the 1990s, nobody, including Herriott, knew that oil and flour could be produced from hemp seeds while leaving the long stem of the plant available for animal bedding and paper.
Herriott first isolated what he calls hemp flour in 1998, holding the premiere for it at a health food show in Baltimore. He has just patented the cold press machine that can produce both oil and flour.
I dropped in to see him earlier this fall at Hempola, his combo oilseed farm, processing operation, farm store and summertime farmers' market just north of Barrie.
He was riding an old tractor, looking like a little boy who'd just got a big play truck. "Smell those delicious fumes," he said, before jumping down to show me around his farm.
Herriott isn't dismayed by the slow marketing of hemp salad oil. "Canola was branded 40 years ago and is essentially rapeseed,' he says. "That's a really interesting parallel for the hemp industry to learn from.'
Herriott's operation uses pressure to squeeze most of the oil out of the seeds and down a tap. He tries to use as much of the oil as possible in the product that fetches the highest price and makes best use of hemp's nutrients: salad oil. But if he can't sell enough salad oil, he'll convert as much as possible of what's left into wood finish. And whatever can't be used that way gets turned into diesel oil, which fetches the lowest price.
The part of the seed left after the first tapping is called seedcake. Lab tests required by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency show that the flour milled from seedcake is made up of eight percent oils, 40 per cent protein, 20 per cent fibre and carbs.
Herriott sells it through his own brand of pancake and brownie flour, and markets his leftover flour to one T.O. baker and a leading U.S. one. His latest dream is to find a breadmaker who's interested in a package deal of flour for bread plus diesel oil for the bread delivery trucks.
While that deal is being worked out, whatever flour can't be sold for human consumption can, as soon as government regulations catch up with the possibility, be used as feed for livestock and fish farms. Unlike most farm crops, hemp is all about co-products, not single ones, a reality that stretches the time and skills of any lean cottage industry.
Then there are the political challenges: hemp's possibilities for a quadruple bottom line position it as a front-running alternative to corn-based ethanol fuels.
Financially and legislatively supported by many North American governments, corn ethanol requires heavy inputs of fossil-fuel fertilizers and further dependence on the giant oil companies that are key ethanol partners at the distribution end.
As well, corn is the opposite of a nutritional wunderkind. The production of ethanol takes almost everything the plant has to offer, which is mainly carbs. All that's left is mash that can be fed to cattle. And corn is difficult to grow, usually requiring harsh pesticides and genetically engineered seeds, and its wide rows commonly lead to severe soil erosion.
If all the subsidies that now go to corn ethanol went instead to hemp foods and bio-fuel, the green farm economy could start to rock. And that's what Herriott wants to oil the skids for to kick-start farm hemp volume to the point where it's an alternative to chopping down forests for toilet paper and scratch pads, or to growing pesticide-intensive cotton.
As farm entrepreneurs like Herriott succeed, the harvests of the future will start to look very different. It's hard to get a sense of the scale of possibilities, because agriculture over the past 40 years has not been very innovative, concentrating almost exclusively on new ways of doing old chores.
What Herriott offers are old ways an ancient crop and adaptations to relatively traditional cold-pressing technologies to do new things, multiplying the efficiency of agriculture and in the process inventing ways to localize economies.
When neighbourhood farms can produce transportation fuel, wood finish, paper and animal feed as well as premium human foods, we are enroute to agro-ecology, the next revolution in agriculture.