Heathen Hemp?


Before interviewing Mike Fata, cofounder of Manitoba Harvest, purveyors of hemp foods and oils, I do a mental tabulation of everything I think I know about hemp. While I tabulate, I eat Manitoba Harvest hemp-seed nut butter by the spoonful, a slow, delectably sticky process that gives me inspiration along with a much-needed protein boost.


George Washington grew hemp. Long used to fashion rope, hemp, no matter how much of it you smoke, will not get you high. Some people like to wear clothing made from hemp fibers. Yet hemp clothing, while certainly durable and sustainable, is rarely considered fashionable by anyone other than those who also wear hemp clothing. (I briefly consider asking Fata if this is one of the reasons why he and fellow cofounders Alex Chwaiewsky and Martin Moravcik have steered clear of the textile industry. Have they too have been frightened away by those boxlike hemp hats and ill-shapen hemp pants? Fortunately, the high nutritional content of the nut butter seems to be working on my brain, and after a few moments of consideration, I decide to cross this question off my list as potentially offensive.)


As it turns out, Manitoba Harvest’s decision to focus on oils and edibles rather than textiles has more to do with its commitment to quality than to fashion sense. Fata claims that hemp is such a large and versatile crop, with such a multitude of uses, that they simply had to focus. The decision to concentrate on the possibilities of hemp seed was based on a passion and commitment to promoting healthy lifestyles.


In fact, Fata says that Moravcik is the Godfather of Hemp in Canada, where he has led a decade-long fight to legalize this farm-saving crop in the United States; Canada decriminalized its production in 1997. Despite the bad name given to hemp by that very different strain of cannabis, hemp is so useful and lucrative that it now provides steady income, as well as a sustainable farming lifestyle, to the 20 farmers who are investors as well as growers for Manitoba Harvest.


Industrial hemp once covered 400,000 acres of farmland in the United States, yet all that is left is the remnant “ditch weed,” or feral hemp, that grows sporadically across the countryside. Innocuous in nature, the federal government nonetheless spends large amounts of our tax dollars attempting to eradicate ditch weed, which any cross-country traveler can tell you will get you about as high as smoking a smudge stick—in other words, not at all.


Fata says that by the time he was 18, he weighed 300 pounds. As this was the 1990s and fat-free diets were all the rage, he chose to lose weight the no-fat way. The method was effective. He quickly dropped down to 160, almost killing himself in the process. Thus began Fata’s exploration into the world of healthy fats. He began to learn about hemp seeds, which offer a rich source of the omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs), providing the best source of balanced EFAs of any other plant source.


After convincing family members of the health benefits as well as potential profits, Fata purchased a European oil press. He began pressing hemp seeds from his home, producing oil which he then sold with great success to health food stores in Winnipeg. In 1998, Fata partnered with hemp activists Chwaiewsky and Moravcik, and together, they moved from a small personal oil press in his kitchen to a 6,000-square-foot kosher- and USDA-organic-certified facility. They now ship their hemp seed oil, hemp nut butter, hemp milk, hemp protein powder and hemp-seed nut all over the world.


Manitoba Harvest is in the process of preparing to move its entire facility to a new 20,000-square-foot facility. This daunting task is necessary, as Manitoba Harvest grows and packages all of its own products. The company’s success, considering the fact that it processes only hemp seed and nothing else, is really quite astounding, and proof that the products speak for themselves.

After my conversation with Fata, who assures me that the winters in Manitoba really aren’t so bad, I peruse the company website for recipes and inspirations. The way this Canadian native says the word “about” like “a boot” is so irresistible that I briefly consider defecting just to be surrounded by such an accent. My plans are temporarily stalled when I see that Hemp Bliss is not shipped November through April due to “product freezing.” It’s true, I’m a fair weather fan. In the North Bay, the temperature is currently hovering in the mid-60s, and so I will remain put in my backwards-thinking, hemp-banning country of origin, where I can import hemp, I can wear hemp and I can eat hemp. I just can’t grow it.


For more information on Manitoba Harvest, go to www.manitobaharvest.com. For more information on legalizing hemp in the United States, go to www.votehemp.com and [ http://www.industrialhemp.net/ ]www.industrialhemp.net.