Hemp Hero: Oilseed Works has paid the price for being first into a new sector. Finally, it's paying off.
Greg Herriott judges how far industrial hemp has come by how few people joke about it. “At our first trade show in 1996, nine of 10 people who visited our booth began with a joke. Now, it’s only two of 10,” says Hempola’s founder. It’s a cool, sunny, spring day, and we’re sitting inside Herriott’s eye-catching octagonal house made from hemp-straw bales. He’s a man who walks the walk.
It has been a rough road. Herriott, who owns Oilseed Works Inc., Hempola (a line of hemp products) and Flour Power (a food / biofuel system involving oilseed crops), pioneered the hemp marketplace and has paid the price for being first in. He hit the big pothole in 2001, six years after the company began. With almost $1-million in annual sales in North America, Herriott figured Hempola had made it. Then, with no advance warning, there was a proposal to ban hemp foods in the US. Overnight, Herriott lost 75 per cent of his business.
It took him four years to get back on track, and though the ban on hemp foods never passed, Herriott has not re-entered the US market in a substantial way. “It only makes sense to market in your own backyard first,” says a wiser Herriott, 53, whose dark hair is now flecked with grey.
Herriott’s 20-hectare property parallels Highway 400 just north of Barrie, Ontario, some 90-kilometres from Toronto. Likely suspicious of a business called Hempola, the local township took exception to his operation, declaring his barn a fire hazard. Herriott says the township’s move forced him to “divide and conquer.” What sets Herriott’s business model apart is that his neighbor Bill King not only grows and harvests hemp, flax and sunflowers for Hempola, he also makes oil, a value-added product. King uses the two presses that Herriott had to remove from his own farm when the township intervened. Herriott says, “What we now have is a farm-gate, value-added infrastructure that is ahead of its time.”
A landscape architect who had built a successful graphic design business is Toronto, Herriott recalls receiving a package of information about hemp from a friend. “I remember staying up to all hours of the night captivated with it.” He learned that hemp is very hardy, grows without pesticides or fertilizer, and can be made into protein-rich and omega-fatty-acid-loaded food, biofuel and fibre for clothing. By the time Canada removed industrial hemp from its narcotics list in 1998, Herriott had already developed some hemp products and launched his business.
Hemp is so versatile that Herriott recently started a new company. Called Flour Power, it markets his systematic approach, whereby hemp is grown, harvested and converted into highly nutritional, non-GMO food as well as biofuel. Herriott admits, “Hempola has been fantastic and I love it, but it’s Flour Power that gets butterflies going for me.” Using a small bakery as an example, Herriott explains that if it were to replace 10 per cent of its total flour use with hemp flour, the bakery could produce enough bio-diesel to fuel its fleet of delivery trucks. Then he explains what Flour Power could do for impoverished communities anywhere that hemp of other oil-rich seeds will grow. Four hundred hectares of hemp will provide 1900 people per year with a 2000-calorie, protein-rich diet. It will also give them almost 10 times as much biofuel as they require for their personal and agricultural needs – the rest can be sold or traded for other goods.
As butterfly-producing as these opportunities appear, Herriott is a realist. “It took canola between 50 and 60 years to come of age. We’re in year 13.” Rather than look for the opportunities, he says, “They scrutinize you. They look for every chink in the armour.”
But Herriott isn’t deterred. This winner of the Toronto Food Policy Council’s Local Food Hero award in 2009 has now picked up an Earth Day Canada Hometown Hero award for his parent company, Oilseed Works Inc. Through his pioneering work with hemp, Herriott can also rest assured that he already has fulfilled his ultimate dream. “It may sound clichéd, but I want to make a difference.”
Nicola Ross is editor-in-chief of
The Canadian government banned hemp for
many years. Read about the history of this
remarkable plant at hemptrade.ca.