Hemp takes off in S. Korea

A strange product appeared on a home shopping channel in South Korea last November.

It was hempseed, which was virtually unknown in Korea at the time.

The entire supply, nearly 10,000 kilograms, sold out in less than an hour.

The surprising response prompted more shipments of Canadian hempseed to South Korea and a distribution deal between Seoulution, a Korean firm, and Hempco, a hemp food company from Burnaby, B.C.

Hempco announced in late April that it would supply Seoulution with 30 tons of hulled hemp seed a month for the next year. The deal is worth $3 million.

“As a major import and export company in Asia, we are going to … maintain the high demand for hemp products in South Korea and further work with our partners in East Asia and Southeast Asia to expand (markets),” said Jon Lee, general manager of Seoulution.

The contract is significant for Hempco because the company recorded $4.1 million in sales of hemp protein power, hemp seed oil and hemp seed nut in the last fiscal year.

The distribution deal was a pleasant surprise because Hempco wasn’t targeting the South Korean market. It had received a few emails and inquiries from Korea, which led to the first order for hempseed and the home shopping channel exposure.

“It (hemp) wasn’t known well (in South Korea) until the last few months,” said Hempco chief executive officer Charles Holmes, who was raised in Winnipeg.

“We were asking … the question, what’s going on over there? Why all of a sudden this (interest) in hemp?”

Holmes learned that many South Koreans are seeking alternative sources of protein and healthy oils because they have become wary of fish after the 2011 accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.

“There are lots of changes going on in their basic dietary plan,” Holmes said.

“Hempseed, as they looked at its nutritional profile, lined up (as a substitute for fish).”

Hempco should be able to supply Korean demand for hemp food because there is a glut of hempseed in Western Canada.

Robust hemp yields and more acres than needed the last couple of years have filled up commercial and on-farm bins. Companies and farmers have enough hempseed in storage to possibly meet demand until the end of this year and maybe into next year.

Holmes contracts hemp production with prairie growers, but he will also draw upon hemp stockpiles to satisfy Korean demand.

“I’ve (already) took about half a million pounds from that overstock,” Holmes said.

“I’ll be getting into the (stored supply) a little bit more.”

Western Canada had 85,000 acres of hempseed last year, but that’s expected to drop this spring, possibly dramatically, because of the glut.

The decline in acres is temporary because hempseed demand is expanding in North America and major food industry firms are looking at hemp as a food ingredient, Holmes said.

Holmes has lobbied a friend with a major food company for 15 years to consider hempseed as an ingredient.

“He (always) said it’s not on our radar. He just called me two months ago and said, ‘it’s on our radar, send me some samples.’ ”

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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