If hemp still has you picturing a stereotypical eco-conscious hippie wearing a hand-knit beanie, a worn flannel shirt, and Birkenstocks, well, it's time to update your imagination.
Manitoba Harvest is on a mission to change consumer perceptions about hemp. While a new national focus on nutrition has catapulted superfoods like acai and spirulina into the spotlight, outdated attitudes have kept hemp largely on the fringe.
Which is, frankly, silly. Not only is hemp a complete source of protein, but it's also packed with omega-3s and something called gamma linolenic acid. This fatty acid can speed up cell growth, combat inflammation, and even perk up a lackluster head of hair.
And hemp is also good for the environment. Consumers are increasingly worried about GMOs and pesticides, which simply isn't an issue for hemp farmers—the plants are so hearty they don't need help.
"Hemp actually does not require pesticides or herbicides to grow," Kelly Saunderson, Manitoba Harvest's sales manager, said. "Once it gets growing, it has a really nice broad reach that naturally suppresses weeds."
Plus, hemp is a great multi-tasker, and can be used to make everything from clothing to industrial materials.
The company's founder, Mike Fata, wasn't playing hacky sack or wearing patchouli oil when he first discovered hemp—he was actually trying to lose weight. After tipping the scale at more than 300 pounds as a teenager, Fata turned to nutrition to help him slim down. Once Fata realized the huge potential for hemp foods, he knew he wanted to get into the business.
The only problem? At the time, hemp wasn't yet legal in Canada, where Manitoba Harvest is now based. Cue the record scratch. There's one other little thing that people tend to get hung up on—hemp's relationship with marijuana. Since both plants come from the cannabis family, hemp often gets the same bad rap as its more notorious cousin.
But as Saunderson points out, "it's like comparing a Great Dane to a chihuahua—both are dogs, but they behave totally differently."
In other words, hemp contains barely any THC, the chemical compound in marijuana that gets you high. Determined to change national policy, Fata and his other two co-founders lobbied the Canadian government to legalize the plant, and in 1998, hemp was legalized.
Since they pioneered the Canadian hemp industry, Manitoba Harvest had to develop their own vertically integrated supply chain. Though it wasn't easy to get started, the company is incredibly proud of their business model.
"It started out as a necessity, because we were the first in the business," Saunderson said. "Now, it's one of our biggest strengths and competitive advantages. We have added quality from seed to shelf."
Another one of Manitoba Harvest's biggest wins is their dedication to the community. This misconceptions about hemp can be so strong that Manitoba Harvest made educating the public about hemp part of its mission. This company is so committed to improving public health that Manitoba Harvest is also a B Corporation—a certification that only includes companies that benefit the general public as well as their shareholders.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont