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Hemp day

Posted on March 24, 2005

Plant sprouting up in skincare, clothes, snacks

It can make lip balm more luscious.

It gives waffles a double shot of nutritional goodies with its protein and essential fatty acids.

It even turns a trendy, pricey blazer into an eco-friendly garment.

Hemp is hip — and much tamer than its naughty cousin, marijuana.

Thanks to the growing demand for all things healthy and natural, the marketplace for products containing hemp seeds, oil and fiber is expanding as well.

The versatile plant has sprouted in everything from The Body Shop’s hemp lotion to tote bags at Target and natural fiber clothing by Edun, the fashion line launched this month by U2 rocker Bono and his wife.

It’s popping up in the grocery aisles and industrial research labs.

“A lot of people think of hemp and think of ‘hippie clothes‚’ and other weird products — they don’t realize how mainstream this is,” says Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a non-profit group that promotes the use of hemp and is lobbying for hemp-farming legislation.

Dubbed “industrial hemp,” the plant is grown legally as a cash crop in Canada, China, France, Russia and several other countries — but not in the United States because it’s not distinguished from marijuana and therefore is classified as a drug, he says.

Hemp comes from different varieties of cannabis than marijuana, which usually contains 3 percent to 20 percent of the psychoactive chemical THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Hemp typically has less than 1 percent THC.

“It’s not anything you could smoke,” says Ed Edmundson, owner of Hemp Sisters clothing retailer in suburban Philadelphia, which imports items from Canada, China and Nepal.

He and Steenstra compare hemp to poppy seeds, which have minimal amounts of opiate.

Hemp does have a lot of essential fatty acids, which help protect the skin. That’s why The Body Shop and Kiss My Face, along with other cosmetics companies, have added its oil to some of their products.

The Body Shop’s Hemp Hand Protector (an intensive moisturizing cream) is still a best seller seven years after the line was launched, spokeswoman Carrie Steinberg says.

Locally, the Health Food Shoppe and Three Rivers Co-op carry some hemp products, including oil and sterilized seeds.

The co-op also carries cereal — which is the most popular hemp item — bread, flour and waffles, plus several skincare products including lip balm, shampoo and soap.

Hemp is known for having a good balance of the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids (also found in fish oil and flax), which is why it has a small but devoted following among the health-conscious set, Edmundson says.

And the plant appeals to shoppers who like their gear to be eco-friendly. Its fibers also are breathable and durable and blend well with others, such as cotton, linen and wool.

“If you buy a pair of hemp jeans, you’ll never have to replace them,” he says.

Hemp Sisters‚ customers include everyone from college kids to “older folks who remember the early environmentalism spirit of the ’70s.”

The most popular item at www.hemp-sisters.com is the furry-looking shoulder bag made of hemp and recycled silk. Most of the bags and hats are handmade by a women’s cooperative in Nepal.

Patagonia, a leader in promoting organic cotton and other natural fibers in its clothes, is also using more hemp these days.

The plant has gone high-tech as well.

FlexForm Technologies in Elkhart uses hemp, along with flax, jute, kenaf and sisal, to make nonwoven mats by blending the natural fibers with polypropylene and polyester.

The mats ultimately are processed into a variety of products, including electronic components and automotive interior trim, that are lighter and stronger, sales manager Harry Hickey says.

Another key benefit is that these manufactured materials don’t require the depletion of non-renewable resources and can be recycled, which customers appreciate, he says.

“It’s a pretty amazing plant,” Edmundson says.

“We do everything we can to support the hemp movement.”

The movement, bolstered by a court decision last fall that ended a ban on hemp food products, is ready for action. Several states have enacted, or are considering, various pro-hemp laws — although farmers aren’t growing it yet, Steenstra says.

There is little, if any, agricultural interest in hemp among Hoosier farmers, according to the Indiana Farm Bureau.

That could change, because Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is expected to introduce federal legislation this year. The Industrial Hemp Farming Act is “a fairly simple bill that would define industrial hemp as being distinct from marijuana and allow states to regulate it,” Steenstra says.

“It draws people from both sides of the aisle; it’s not a partisan issue.”

Hemp was grown in the United States for years, but its popularity waned after the invention of the cotton gin. There was a boom again during World War II, when farmers were encouraged to grow it.

From a farming standpoint, hemp is beneficial because it’s hardy, can be grown with few or no pesticides and can be rotated with other crops. It also grows in a variety of climates, Steenstra says.

For those who worry that legalizing hemp is just a doorway for legalizing marijuana, that won’t be the case, he says.

“We’re focused on this strictly as a farming issue. The two are totally separate issues,” Steenstra says.

In Canada, where farmers have grown it legally since 1998, “hemp’s not really controversial anymore,” says Arthur Hanks, executive director of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance.

The process began with three years of research-only cultivation. Today, farmers must be licensed by the government.

He estimates there are “a couple hundred” Canadian farmers in the small but growing industry, most of them family farms — although in western Canada, a small farm could stretch to 1,200 acres.

They’ll produce between 10,000 and 15,000 acres of hemp this season, up from about 8,000 acres last year.

Most of those farmers rotate hemp with their other crops, growing between 40 and 100 acres a season. There aren’t any all-hemp farms at this point, Hanks says.

Most of the crop is cultivated for the seed, which will make its way into the United States, “a huge market” in the form of food and cosmetics, he says.

About half of Canada’s crop is organic, because that’s what more consumers want.

There are some farmers who do use pesticides, because grasshoppers like to munch on hemp. The plant is also susceptible to mold, he says.

“The farmers are making nice prices right now, because demand is outstripping supply,” Hanks says.

Every field is registered with the government. That means there are random inspections, to make sure no one is cultivating marijuana instead. So far, that hasn’t been a problem, Hanks says.

“Hemp is treated like its own crop, it has its own regulatory system‚ every year it becomes more like a business,” he says.

Copyright © 2005, The Journal Gazette. All rights reserved.