The House That Hemp Built

MARK Reinders was introduced to industrial hemp in his teens when his father began growing it in the mid-1990s – one of the first farmers to do so in the Netherlands.

The crop was bound for a company called HempFlax, a new venture that had been launched in 1993 in Bant by trailblazer Ben Dronkers – the man behind the Sensi Seeds cannabis seed bank and the Hash Marijuana and Hemp Museums in Amsterdam and Barcelona – before moving to the small Dutch village of Oude Pekela close to the German border in 1996.

It was Dronkers’ dream to restore the age-old plant’s reputation as a sustainable, multi-purpose crop that can benefit our wellbeing and the environment.

Nearly three decades on and HempFlax is now Europe’s largest independent grower and processor of industrial hemp, working with around 70 farmers in the Netherlands, Germany and Romania. This year over 2,100 hectares of hemp is expected to be harvested.

The whole plant is processed and used in a raft of hemp-based goods, from fibre for industrial applications to animal bedding, nutraceuticals, horticultural products, plant genetics and seeds.

Mark Reinders’ father still grows industrial hemp for the firm – to which his son was appointed CEO in 2016.

HempFlax has just posted among its best ever annual results with profits before tax rocketing 616% in 2020 to €659,000 and full year revenues up 43% to €14.5m on the back of increased CBD, animal bedding, fibre and construction material sales – the latter bolstered by the firm’s acquisition last year of German concern Thermo Natur, which makes insulation from natural fibres.

Reinders is passionate about building a healthy planet for future generations and believes industrial hemp has a vital part to play in reducing CO2 emissions and making the world a more sustainable place.

Here he talks to JANE HALL about his route into hemp, the plant’s versatility, and changing consumer perceptions.

BC: How did you get into hemp production?

MR: When my father started growing hemp I became fascinated by the crop’s massive growth speed, around 4cm a day. After bamboo, it is the fastest growing crop. Even after all these years, I am still full of wonder at how quickly it can grow.

Later on, when I was studying for agricultural management and crop production, I had to do an internship and decided to do mine at HempFlax. I wanted to know what happened to the crop after it left our family farm.

I went on to do a Master’s degree in management, worked for a couple of years in potato trading and then did five years in the recycling business. I saw recycling as a good solution for the problems we are creating, but I also found out about the massive work that needs to be done to recycle stuff into reusable streams, always ending up with a part that isn’t reclaimable.

I knew then that if we want to make a difference we have to change the start of the supply chain, not the end. With that vision, I returned to HempFlax in 2008.

BC: What was your view on hemp when you were growing up? 

MR: I grew up in a rural part of the Netherlands so was not confronted with the other uses of hemp. For me, it has always been an agricultural crop.

I was amazed by the number of products you can make from it and the possibilities it throws up of things not yet discovered. That’s what really caught my attention.

BC: Tell us a bit more about those products?

MR: Ben Dronkers founded HempFlax to prove that hemp could be an industrial crop and that it could be reintroduced. It took 28 years, but in the end he has been proved right, because today we are supplying fibres for BMW, Mercedes, Bentley, Jaguar and the Bugatti Veyron. We make insulation and building materials, CBD products in bulk and white label, hemp-based plastic replacements and animal care products. I think we have proven Ben Dronkers’ point that hemp can be an industrial crop.

BC: Industrial hemp used to be a common crop. What went wrong?  

MR: Until the late 1950s early 1960s hemp was grown on a big scale. Romania had over 80,000 hectares under cultivation. In the US there were leaflets produced in World War Two urging farmers to grow hemp so there would be enough fibre for clothing and rope. Then the anti-narcotic laws came in which prohibited the growing of all hemp; there was no differentiation made between industrial hemp and marijuana.

When Ben Dronkers started HempFlax he had to overcome 50 years of regulations, lack of technology and development. Those years of underdevelopment mean that hemp is still a minority crop. But we are on the way up.

We are now at a point where people are talking about a biobased economy and sustainability. Twenty years ago no-one cared about these things. Now, people are realising the impact our way of living and production is having on the environment.

BC: How have people’s attitudes changed since HempFlax was set-up?

MR: In the beginning everyone was afraid it was just a big smoke and mirror operation for growing marijuana. That is no longer the case. I have seen attitudes change even from when I started here in 2008. People would say ‘Oh, hemp, you’ll be high all day long.’ Now people will start telling me all the things you can do with it, from clothing to car parts and building houses.

See what has happened in Canada with cannabis being legalised, and places like Paraguay, Uruguay and even the US now discussing legalisation. More and more European countries are accepting cannabis medicine and there is even discussion in Europe of legalisation.

Canadian cannabis companies are worth billions of dollars and people are now saying that maybe they shouldn’t just be focusing on marijuana but on whole crop use. That is the phase we are in. We are not doing marijuana, but we are doing CBD, the seeds, stalks, fibre, the shives; there is nothing lost.

BC: Why do you think attitudes have changed?

MR: I think HempFlax is part of that. We have proven to the world that hemp is an industrial crop and through the things we are making for brands like Mercedes, BMW and Bugatti, people no longer see it as a drug but as something that can provide food, medicine, and high end products.

BC: How has HempFlax’s ambition and outlook changed over the years?

MR: In the beginning it was fibre and shive and the shives were going for bedding and the fibres were going to the paper industry for cellulose. Then we added building materials, CBD and became a white label supplier. Every year we go a step further in the supply chain.

Last year we bought a factory in Germany to supply hemp insulation, so now we have the whole supply chain from seed to ready-to-use insulation. It is the same for CBD, from seed to shelf. By shortening the supply chains you can be more competitive.

BC: Does hemp give us a means to move away from a fossil-based economy?

MR: The old economy based on polluting the earth is going away. We can produce high quality products without having to make any concessions on people’s standard of living and with no CO2 footprint.

Our insulation material, for example, stores CO2; you are storing CO2 in your walls for 80 years, or however long you have your home. Other insulation materials, like mineral wool or polystyrene, emit more CO2, so they have a positive footprint.

We can produce without polluting the world. We should not stop living. We can continue increasing the quality of our lifestyle just by using different materials. 

The Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones and people were running around saying, ‘what can we use now?’ They moved into the Iron Age because iron was better than stones. We don’t have to wait until we use the last drop of oil or gas. We are smart people, we can handle this.

We are not saying that hemp can save the world on its own. But it is one of the solutions.

BC: Could hemp really be a game-changer when it comes to cutting our CO2 emissions?

MR: Yes, hemp definitely has a role in carbon pick-up. By stopping CO2 emissions from our insulation materials, every cubic metre of hemp prevents 1 cubic metre of glass fibre insulation being produced. We can save up to 140 kilograms of CO2 on each cubic metre of hemp insulation being made.

We are now working on systems to capitalise on that because we are now going more towards an economy where industries have to pay for their CO2 emissions where others could receive monies for their CO2 capture.

People have seen with Covid how quickly the Earth can recover. We have an opportunity to build a more sustainable economy than we had before, and hemp will definitely play a role in that.

HempFlax has spent 25 years making hemp a profitable endeavour. We have achieved a vertically integrated supply chain able to produce natural products that hold their own against unsustainable alternatives in a range of industries from construction, to cars and animal care.

This has been achieved against regulatory uncertainty.

BC: The European Parliament voted last October to increase the authorised THC level for industrial hemp plants from 0.2% to 0.3%. The change isn’t expected to come into effect EU-wide until 2023, but assuming it happens, how will it affect your business?

MR: There will be more new hemp plant varieties listed that can be grown which we will be testing for fibre quality, CBD yield etc. I  am looking forward to having more varieties available.

BC: You sell into the UK. What are your views on the UK’s Novel Food regulations?

MR: We welcome the fact that the FSA (Food Standards Agency) took a lead in a sensible and realistic way, because it was an unregulated space. Human safety is always paramount. People should be sure that what they are getting is safe, not only on a hygiene level, but on a food one too.

We have submitted Novel Food applications through the European Industrial Hemp Association’s (EIHA) Novel Food Consortium.

We have had acknowledgement that all the documents are in place but we don’t have the toxicology study done. We started that a couple of months ago and it will be finished at the end of the year. But we know we can stay in the market with the toxicology study pending.

We are convinced that the products we had on the market will get approval.

The UK can be proud that they have taken this step and we look forward to continuing to work with the FSA on a reasonable way of regulating the CBD market.

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