Rosebud. High Times Interview. High Times, April 2000, photos and story by Dan Skye.
Richard Rose was a sickly child until he discovered he was allergic to dairy products. Changing his diet changed his life. At 43, the California native is an energetic entrepreneur who built a small natural foods empire, The Rella Good Cheese Company, marketing cheese alternatives. Six years ago, Rose entered the hemp foods arena, launching the Hempeh burger and HempRella. Now, his HempNut Corporation is spotlighting HempNut, his highly nutritious shelled hemp seed [“the soybean of the next millennium”]. Rose has watched the hemp industry take its infant steps, but sees some warning signs posted ahead. The biggest danger? Pretending any longer that pot and hemp are different.
HIGH TIMES: Generally, people spend little time thinking about what they eat in this country. Does that bother you?
Richard Rose: I‘ve been a veg since I was twelve. But for me what people eat– whether they‘re vegetarian, vegan or any of those other descriptions– is in the realm of sexual preference, drug use and religion. It’s nobody’s business. Everyone is free to do what they want without judgment as far as I’m concerned. But there are enormous numbers of people who are realizing that what they put into their body today will impact what they think and feel and believe tomorrow. I see it in my business with our lactose-free and cholesterol-free cheeses. People who ate the standard American diet for so many years are now getting hip to the fact that they’ve got to make some changes. They’re realizing that the best predictor of what your quality of life will be down the road is diet.
HIGH TIMES: In 1993, Inc. magazine cited Rella as one of the 500 fastest-growing companies in the US. Since then you’ve put a lot of money into hemp.
We’ve probably invested more in hemp foods than anyone– quarter of a million dollars in ‘99 alone. It’s basically the same thing that happened to me in ‘79 when I got into soy. I had an epiphany that this was a really good thing. It was a similar epiphany when I read Chris Conrad’s Hemp: Lifeline to the Future. I realized just how nutritious hemp seed really was. It has almost as much protein as soy and more essential fatty acids. It doesn’t have the anti-nutritional factors of soy. It doesn’t taste horrible like soy. It didn’t give you gas like soy. It was just a better material to work with.
HIGH TIMES: So what is HempNut?
I coined the term Hemp Nut as a fanciful brand name for material which at the time called hulled hemp seed, which I now call shelled hemp seed.
HIGH TIMES: There are others who are using the name “hempnut” in a generic sense.
That’s because it’s such a good brand name and I’ve done such a good job promoting it. HempNut is not theirs to appropriate. I’m the one who coined it, I’m the one who popularized it, I’m the one doing more with it than anybody– and l trademarked it.
HIGH TIMES: What should people be looking for in hemp food?
Unfortunately, you can’t choose the safest, healthiest product by looking at the label. This is the only aspect of the food industry– a humongous industry with a zillion different ingredients and products in it– that is so unregulated it doesn’t even have standards of identity. Hemp seed literally has not one single standard. People can sell virtually anything as hemp oil. It can be pressed from immature green seeds, be full of contaminants and have very little omega-3 or omega-6 [essential fatty acids], and be sold as hemp oil right next to the highest-quality organic hemp oil using the fattest, darkest, juiciest, best seeds. There would be absolutely no objective way of noting the difference.
The entire infrastructure for hemp seed is built around it being an animal food, that farmers grow it thinking it’s all going to be eaten by birds. The collectors get it from the farmers, consolidate it and sell it to traders, and everybody assumes it’s going to be used for birds. The traders get it, bring it in, clean it, bag it up and ship it off assuming it’s going to be used for birds. Consequently, you have a lot of really dirty product being sold.
HIGH TIMES: Are people at risk?
Not necessarily, but they might be. I did come across a sample from one very prominent vendor of shelled hemp seed with a bacterial load thirty times greater than allowable.
HIGH TIMES: How many companies are using hempseed products you consider inferior?
Maybe a quarter. The companies who do a good job are run by what l call “foodies”–longtime cooks or people who’ve done food businesses before. Humboldt Hemp Foods, Nature’s Path and Hempola are all quality food companies. Those who are connected to food, who produce quality products and are less interested in making money, tend to do a better job. They’re more meticulous about quality, more concerned with contamination.
What makes us different is that we’ve got twenty years experience. We developed eighty products in the ‘80s, which we test-marketed. We have a whole infrastructure which startup companies don’t have– sales brokers, distribution and labs who do analysis for us. We probably spend more on lab reports than some companies do on rent. We throw away product that doesn’t meet our specs–which would be salable or usable by others. [32,000 pounds of shelled hempseed one time]
HIGH TIMES: Where do you get your hemp?
Europe and Canada.
HIGH TIMES: Is it organic?
One of the problems of having hemp activists and non-foodies come into the food industry is that to them everything is organic. What pisses me off is the stuff that’s not organic positioned as organic. There is a complex regulatory structure set up to define what organic is in different states. Just because hemp comes out of the ground and you grew it without pesticides or herbicides doesn’t mean it’s organic. It has to do with what was grown there previously. Was anything applied to the soil there in the last three years? What kind of fertilizer do you use? I’ve seen so much fraud in the hemp industry around this term organic. It’s what happens when people who aren’t professionals enter the food industry.
HIGH TIMES: Are you talking about hemp business people?
The first hemp businesspeople were activists, people who didn’t necessarily know anything about business, accounting, marketing, law, contracts or anything else. They just knew that they wanted to make money to pay for their activism through hemp. A lot were able to do that for a few years, but you can only be incompetent for so long before the rent is due. That’s why l think there has been a shakeout in the last few years.
HIGH TIMES: Does the hemp industry disappoint you?
Only when l see businesspeople taking on the same characteristics as those that they detest. They commit illegal, immoral and unethical acts– every bit as unethical, illegal, libelous, slanderous and defamatory in their business dealings as the government has been during the last 63 years relative to this plant. It’s almost like the POW syndrome where captives take on the likeness and actions of their captors. Just in the last couple of years, I’ve seen an enormous number of really mind-boggling, horrendous things being done by people in the hemp industry. They say, “If we can get more business, no matter how we go about it, it’s better for everyone in the hemp industry.” If you get business in an illegal, unethical, immoral way, it’s not better for the hemp industry.
HIGH TIMES: Could people accuse you of not being an activist?
I have put a multimillion-dollar, multinational company, of which I’m 100% owner, on the line for the last six years for hemp. Last year, I invested a quarter of a million dollars in hemp. I’ve probably invested half a million dollars in hemp in the past five years. I have put a $4 million profitable company in the crosshairs. We put Rella on the line for what we believe in– hemp. No one in the hemp industry has done that. No one has taken a functioning, profitable, sizable company and put it on the line in order to make something happen with hemp. I needed to do it for my own personal integrity. I know what l am doing is right, legal and ethical. I don’t fear it.
But being right, legal and ethical doesn’t mean you can’t get in trouble for it. Look at Todd McCormick [the medical-marijuana advocate arrested for cultivation]. It was all those things right, legal and ethical– and he’s still looking at five years.
HIGH TIMES: Is it unrealistic to think that the hemp industry should be better?
No. Because most of us are activists at heart in some way. I’m a businessperson who’s also an activist, but many of us are activists first and then businesspeople. We can never be as evil as our oppressors. It might be a Gandhi influence, but I feel we can never fall into the trap. We must always be morally righteous, otherwise we’ve lost our reason to oppose them. I would like to think that the activists do have, in fact, a higher calling than the average person to be more ethical and have greater integrity.
HIGH TIMES: A few years ago you were pretty emphatic that pot and hemp should be separated.
There were practical reasons. You don’t make good clothes out of Afghani bud and you don’t get good pot out of hemp. There is a natural division defined by use, agronomy and genetics, and we were trying to get people to recognize the difference. We needed to talk about the differences in these two plants– the distinct varieties, applications, growing methods and growing regions. The indigenous Arctic people have thirty words for snow. Surely, we can have two words for the most useful plant known to man.
Marijuana makes a great medicine, but it makes lousy clothes and oil. Just like hemp makes lousy medicine. I’m definitely a longtime fan of its virtues. I’m not denigrating medicinal cannabis by trying to get people to differentiate between the two or by promoting hemp.
HIGH TIMES: Lately, though, you’ve stopped making that delineation.
I separate marijuana from industrial hemp, but they both need to be equally legal. We need justice for this most maligned plant for recreational and medicinal use. We’ve got to take this plant out of the criminal-justice system, whether it’s a load of hemp seed out of Ontario or a guy growing a plant in his backyard.
HIGH TIMES: What altered your stance?
The Kenex hempseed seizure in August, where legal hemp products were seized by Customs by using marijuana laws [“The 20-Ton Birdseed Bust and the Hemp-Oil Urinalysis Glitch,” Feb 2000 HT]. That woke me up to the fact that if the Feds are going to use marijuana laws to stop the hemp industry, then the hemp industry can no longer bury its head when it comes to marijuana laws. We can’t act like this is a flax plant or a sunflower plant, that we’re not subject to those marijuana laws. The government has taken Jack Herer’s message to heart: They’re both the same. High-THC and low-THC are the same. Ask any Fed. That’s what they’ll tell you. Hemp is marijuana.
Hence, those marijuana laws were used against industrial hemp when they seized that load from Kenex [a major hempseed producer In Ontario]. That’s when I realized here we are in our little, altruistic vacuum playing like they’re separate, while the Feds completely ignore the issue and use marijuana laws to hassle legitimate industrial-hemp companies’ products and imports.
If the Feds are going to arrest, stop our imports and make life miserable for industrial hemp, we have to accept the reality as it exists. There is nothing we can do but accept it and work on that basis. Which means we have to change the marijuana laws if we’re ever going to stop being hassled for hemp.
HIGH TIMES: Which has more potential–hemp food or hemp apparel?
Hemp clothes came first because all we had was hemp fabric, and people who knew how to make clothes made clothes out of it. It was the easiest thing to do out of the gate. Hemp was used for clothes for thousands of years. There was no reason to change that now. But how often do you buy a jacket or a pair of jeans relative to how often you eat? You are going to eat every day– three times, if you’re lucky. I buy jeans a couple of times a year and I’m hard on them. If you look at the sheer volume of business done, the food business is fifty times larger than both textiles and paper combined. On sheer volume alone, that’s a better reason to be into food. Everyone has a passion for food to some degree. A lot of us couldn’t care less about clothes, but everybody has an opinion about food.
There is such a myriad of possible products you can make in the food industry as opposed to clothes. With clothes, you’re pretty much restricted to shirts, pants, socks, shoes, jackets and accessories. Food allows for imagination.
Pull quote: “You can only be incompetent for so long before the rent is due. That’s why I think there has been shakeout [in the hemp industry] in the last few years.”
Caption: Richard Rose is forging new trails for hemp in the highly competitive natural foods industry.
Pull quote: “You don’t make good clothes out of Afghani bud and you don’t get good pot out of hemp”