The budding Gisborne hemp industry is truly starting to bloom. With Hikurangi Enterprises looking to open their CBD extraction facility in the coming months, the East Coast may become the ‘Cannabis Coast’ as entrepreneurs see potential in the crop.
Tairāwhiti Hemp Company, a start-up company based in Gisborne run by a young couple Simon White and Olivia Steven, produces oils and seeds for consumption (without any THC – the psychoactive compound). The aim for the young couple is to create truly New Zealand products by infusing their oils with local medicinal flora like kawakawa and horopito. In development, they have a kawakawa and lemon hemp oil, and a horopito and garlic hemp oil, which they say is quite nutty with a spicy little kick.
Cannabis is an old crop. George Washington, the first President of the United States, is the most well-known hemp farmer. However, it is quite likely Washington wasn’t getting stoned in his weekends. Hemp is a strain which is good for producing food and fibrous material for making goods like paper and clothes (the first copy of the US Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper). However, after the first world war, for many reasons, all forms of cannabis were declared illegal.
We sat down with Simon White of Tairāwhiti Hemp Company, to find out more about what it’s like to get in on the ‘green rush’ with a product once deemed dangerous.
‘The negative views around marijuana have dissipated fast, we’ve noticed that people are less dubious and understand that it’s not going to get you high… now people just joke about it being weed, it’s a bit of a running joke you know – ‘the good stuff is coming soon!’’ White jokes, ‘where in the past those weren’t the kinds of conversations we were having with the public – perceptions have changed dramatically.’
Like most start-ups, the business getting to where it is, has been a journey. It all started with a hemp-wool insulation business developed during Tairāwhiti Start-up Weekend. ‘We pitched the idea and got some local funding to help start it up, spoke to Intellectual Property lawyers, got Callaghan Innovation onboard and had scientists at Lincoln University start on creating a test product. However, I’d heard of a guy down in Nelson who had tried hemp insulation in the past but for whatever reason had failed. Once I finally got his contact details and gave him a call, his advice was ‘don’t go there man, nope, don’t start’’.
According to White, the insulation was so good that a large insulation company sued the man to kill the competition. ‘They sued him once, and he won, then they sued him again, and then the fourth time they took him to court – a Court of Appeal in like Cambridge or London or something … he didn’t show up [because of the distance] so that meant he defaulted – he ended up losing near a million dollars’.
While that is enough to scare anyone off, there was also an issue of high energy costs due to extensive water and power use which didn’t fit with White’s broader plan. ‘So, I told the lawyers, Callaghan Innovation and Lincoln University that it wasn’t going forward and thankfully they didn’t charge me, then I went back to the local funding agency and said ‘sorry I’m not gonna be able to go through with the project – here’s your money back’’. White chuckles, ‘They said no one had ever returned their money before. After that, I went to Thailand for six weeks to recharge, and when I got back I realised that hemp food was the one’.
In the short term, the group is looking to establish a good customer base, selling high-quality products that are good for the community. In the long-term, the goal is to infuse their hemp food products with CBD (the medicinal compound found in cannabis) which is touted as having various benefits and sell it to world markets. ‘Everyone can go hemp these days’, says White, ‘for us, it’s about being uniquely New Zealand, [what we can do] is infuse our product with these New Zealand natives and have a real point of difference.’
If you want to know more, you can head to their website at www.tairawhitihempco.nz or see them and taste their good stuff (it’s already here!) down at the Gisborne Farmers’ Market every Saturday.