By Anne Cook, The News-Gazette
Chicago, Illinois — When Patricia O’Brien found out her son, then a high school freshman, was doing research on hemp, she immediately started doing some research herself.
“I felt it was my responsibility as a parent to find out about it,” said O’Brien, who got hooked on the crop and now sells products made from it at her Old Town store, Eco’fields, on Wells Street.
She is a member of the task force appointed by the Senate to look into the issue of legalizing hemp as a crop.
“I couldn’t not do this because I knew what I knew,” she said. “I had a wonderful corporate position and a regular paycheck, but I’m very concerned about deforestation and water pollution and quality. I had to do this.”
At Eco’fields, O’Brien sells shampoos, body oils, soap, shirts, towels, jewelry, clothing, vests, jackets, ties, luggage and building materials, all made from some hemp component.
“I have everything I can get my hands on,” she said. “I’ve concentrated on U.S. suppliers, but I will be forced to go into European and Chinese products. China’s growing most of the world’s hemp, and they’ve increased production there 26 percent this year alone.”
O’Brien’s also considering Thailand as a source for future merchandise.
“The government there is encouraging industrial hemp production to take attention away from growing the drug varieties,” she said. She sells a lot of paper.
“I sell it by the ream,” O’Brien said. “There’s no better quality than hemp.”
O’Brien just celebrated her first year in business, and she said Eco’fields is thriving.
“The day I signed the lease, I talked to (State Senator) Evelyn Bowles about crop prospects in Illinois. I was terrified. After talking to her, I had all the confidence in the world.”
Bowles, D-Edwardsville, is a supporter of legislation now making its way through the General Assembly that would authorize researchers to explore possibilities for growing hemp in Illinois.
O’Brien now imports her paper from eastern Europe, paying significant shipping costs, and she believes domestic crop production would bring products like paper closer to home.
“Illinois should be able to grow two crops a year without any problem,” she said. “It doesn’t require pesticides, and it nourishes the soil. That’s a huge difference from what’s happening now in farm fields.”
O’Brien is optimistic about the success of the Springfield legislation.
“I think our legislators do their homework and understand what’s at stake,” she said. “And that’s not even considering the benefits to farmers.”
“Production in Illinois would make me feel more confident about the future for my grandchildren,” O’Brien said. “I think we’d better start turning the environment around as fast as possible. Sometimes I feel hopeless, however, like the environment’s more important to the public than it is on the political agenda.”
More information about O’Brien’s business is available at www.ecofields.com.
The Hemp Industries Association based at Occidental, California, spreads the hemp story all over the country. More information is available at www.thehia.org.
Executive secretary Candi Penn said HIA represents more than 300 farmers, processors, retailers, researchers and consultants.
“We deal only with industrial hemp and the legal products,” Penn said. “We provide information to people who want to know if it’s viable economically.”
The association also tries to educate consumers.
“We’re making progress in educating the public, consumers, farmers and legislators,” she said, noting that federal Drug Enforcement Agency attitudes still present a significant hurdle.
“We’re working on changing its image, and most people know the difference,” Penn said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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