This is because hemp oil is permitted as a food ingredient in New Zealand, where a small-scale industry has developed over the 15 years since it was legalised. The authorities there have even been relaxed about the use of hemp seeds in the country’s high-end restaurants, according to one notable restauranteur.
“It’s been illegal for most people to have a hemp farm—the oil is legal but the farm hasn’t usually been. I think there’s been a blind eye turned to it, you know,” says Kent Baddeley, proprietor of the Ten Twenty Four restaurant in Hastings and a fan of using the ingredient in his culinary creations.
Baddeley, a former New Zealand chef of the year, says he has been using hemp oil in his cooking for “probably 30 years” as it has “some amazing properties”. He speculates that this laissez-faire approach to hemp use is due to a longstanding system of cronyism that aims to protect connected farmers with competing crops.
Isaac Beach, a young Kiwi entrepreneur, has chosen to follow the established regulatory system, however. Over the last 18 months he has gained the necessary licences to manufacture a cold-pressed concentrated hemp oil which launched in Hawke’s Bay earlier this year and targets local chefs like Baddeley.
His oil, branded Kanapu, is manufactured using hemp seeds grown at his nearby farm, where “the soil brings pretty unique texture, colour, aroma and flavours to the product”. This vertically integrated production brings hemp “from soil to oil”, and uses a specific variety of plant imported from France.
“We grow the hemp ourselves as well as process it,” he says. “We contract out our distribution to partners so it doesn’t distract us from where our core business is. We manage the supply chain up to when the product is packaged and ready to be despatched to chefs.”
To operate, he has gained a licence from the Ministry of Health for the cultivation and supply of industrial hemp. Though the process is straightforward now, he said it was once quite fraught, especially when the legislation was first introduced and the regulatory body had little experience of policing the industry.
“When the initial legislation unfolded it was quite a difficult task to acquire a licence, let alone actually have the freedom to operate and cultivate for experimental purposes and to accelerate a product to market,” he says.
Today, there are still some challenges, “but at the moment it’s a really good time to be in the industry with the endorsement that the ministry has given us to manufacture myriad different products.”
A number of Kiwi companies that have been producing hemp seed oil in NZ, but Beach believes his is the only one on the North Island that is currently growing and manufacturing products and distributing them to retailers and culinary artists.
He says chefs love the oil; indeed, the plethora of high-end restaurants in the Hawke’s Bay area was one of the reasons that attracted him to set up business there.
“It is always good to go into an area with a high degree of competency, and then, of course there’s the farming heritage. In terms of the demand for the product, we have had a 100% success rate with the restaurants and chefs we’ve targeted. For the good of continuous business, the venues have been selling it, and that has helped guide us in the direction of our product and means of production.”
Launched in February—felicitous timing ahead of the decision by trans-Tasman health ministers in April to green-light the use of hemp as a food—he has increased distribution from a test bed of a few small shops to gain an idea of how the market would pan out. Now the company is preparing to expand to Wellington and Auckland, and expects to have a large network of stores and chefs stocking the oil by September across North Island.
“The east coast is currently doing very well. We are getting plenty of calls from people outside that region who are really interested in receiving the product,” Beach says.
He currently operates some 150 hectares in Hawkes Bay with four staff and seasonal farm workers, which is sufficient given the current distribution scale. Given that each hectare of plants translates to production of 360 litres of hemp oil, he will need to sell 54,000 litres of the product before he needs to access new fields. This looks like a probability, given recent events two time zones away to the west.
Having kept his finger on the pulse in terms of Australia’s market potential, Beach has noticed more companies acquiring machinery to press hemp seeds into oil. Back when businesses in the likes of American and Canada were doing similar, the market entered into an “unprecedented growth experience over the next three years” and he believes the same will take place in Australia and New Zealand.
“I’m 100% confident, especially in Australia, because of the sheer size of the market there. For those who have been involved in the industry, I think we will be in a very nice position,” he says, adding that the lead-up time to launch his product has helped his company understand and solve many of the problems that newcomers will no doubt face—especially those who are new to the crop.
Paul Benhaim, chief executive of Hemp Foods Australia, and one of the key figures in the hemp industry’s push to get their products recognised as foods, estimates that the size of the market will quadruple within the first year after legalisation is confirmed, probably in the next six months.
Much of the interest has been coming from foodservice, with many “hatted” Australian cooks expressing a desire, like Chef Kent, to add “the nice, dark green and almost herbaceous mouthfeel” of hemp products to their menus.