Hemp for nutrition: an interview with Don Wirtshafter of Hemp Oil, Canada

Tuesday, October 25, 2005 by: Steve Diaz
Tags: hemp seeds, hemp oil, natural foods

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Don Wirtshafter: I'm Don Wirtshafter and I'm a director of Hemp Oil, Canada. I'm known in this market because I was the first person in the natural foods industry promoting hemp products. I did this 12 years ago, when we had to be importing hemp out of China. It was a terrible quality and I had some of my old product to explain to people how terrible it was and how much better it could be if we could grow hemp here. Well, Canada listened and opened up hemp production in 1998, just when the United States shut down my mill, not allowing me to import seeds any more. We moved production up to Canada and created a new Canadian company that's done extremely well.

Steve Diaz: So that was 1998?

Wirtshafter: 1998. In 2001, just after 9/11, the federal government saw the momentum that hemp was generating in this market and put the kibosh on it by declaring one day that hemp was illegal. The merchandise in my basement all of a sudden became a controlled substance and a hazardous waste disposal problem, and (it) put us out of business. The industry got together under the Hemp Industries Association, www.thehia.org, and fought the government in a civil law suit. We won: We had full, complete, total victory over the Drug Enforcement Administration in the 9th circuit Court of Appeals in California, which has now taken away the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Administration over these hemp foods, which are now properly in the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration.

So, the gates are open, the green light is on and we are doing our sales again in hemp products. Our company has centered itself on being the supplier of choice to all these other companies, so we have 22 different companies at the show who are buying raw materials from us. We're not really offering a retail line of our product. We are instead trying to talk about hemp in general and trying to find more bakers who want to bake goods with hemp seeds. This has been the best innovation for us. The seeds are hard to eat, hard to digest and hard to incorporate into food, but once you take the shells off, they're like nuts. It's like as if you look at pecans with the shells or pecans without the shells. All of a sudden, I take the shells off; this makes it easy for any food manufacturer to incorporate hemp into their products. It's extremely high in protein and extremely high in essential fatty acids, which is the big buzz of the show. The protein is special because it's very self-combining. It contains all of the essential amino acids in very high proportions and the protein is extremely simple, unlike soy, which is very complex protein. Soy is very difficult to digest; hemp is very simple to digest, so it's recommended for people coming off of starvation, people with autoimmune diseases like arthritis and it's especially recommended for people with tuberculosis.

Steve: Are there any popular products that are using hemp oil? How can I relate this back to the consumer?

Wirtshafter: French Meadow bread. Their healthy hemp bread is a huge seller for them. It's half their market, I think, right now. And Nature's Path cereals. We're their exclusive suppliers for both of those. Dr. Bronner's is coming out with a whole line of hemp foods and we're supplying them.

Steve: So, you're seeing a lot of momentum?

Wirtshafter: Well, yes, we saw an 80 percent jump last year without the court victory. The court victory came just at the end of our business year, so we would have expected an even bigger jump, except that no one anticipated the victory, so there aren't enough seeds to supply the market. We're not even pushing very hard this year for these sales because it's going to be until October before we really have the new supply of seeds. This year, we've tripled our production, or tripled our acreage, and there are a lot of other farmers growing it that aren't contracted yet, so I don't think we're going to have supply problems after the fall.

Steve: You have a supply problem, right now?

Wirtshafter: Yes, we have a supply problem. There's not hemp seed available in the world market; at least, there's not organically-grown hemp seed available in the market.

Steve: Organically grown?

Wirtshafter: About 75 percent of our business is in growing. This market pretty well demands certified organic when it's available. Hemp is extremely easy to grow certified organic. Hemp is known for being resistant to insects and pests and other diseases.

Steve: Is that why it's good taste-wise?

Wirtshafter: Oh, yes. It's very nutty. It has kind of a wholesome flavor. It's great for salad dressings. This industry is fairly hemp-friendly from its roots. People come and see this and say, "It's about time!" But people also know us because we've been at this show for 10 years in a row. This is the first year we've got a real business going, you know? We've got profitability. This is the first year that I feel like I'm really a business person here. For years, it was promotional and it was something we had to subsidize. Now, we're bankable. We're about to build a huge mill to expand our business and to meet the demand.

Steve: I appreciate you taking a few minutes here.

Wirtshafter: Sure.

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