Growing Hemp on the Island of Bornholm
Hemp has been awfully misunderstood. We take a look at how this 'miracle crop' is making a comeback in the Nordics.
Signe Anker is the Co-Founder of Bornholmerhampen. She worked as a teacher before becoming a farmer with her partner Emmanuel. Together, they grow hemp and hand harvest it to produce teas, flour, oil, and cosmetics on the beautiful Danish island of Bornholm. In this episode, we explore the state of hemp in the Nordics from its history and sustainability profile to the regulations and red tape holding it back.
As a listener of the podcast, you get an exclusive discount to try Bornholmerhampen’s products. Apply the code NORDICFOODTECH at checkout to receive a 20% discount.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 3:20
I'm so excited to have you on. I always like starting with a little bit of background on who you are. So, how did you discover hemp? How did you get to Bornholm? What's your story?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 3:37
Well, I started this project with my husband four years ago. At that time, I'd been working as a high school teacher for quite a few years and my husband had been working in an IT position for a company in Buenos Aires in Argentina. We both wanted to change our field of work completely to something completely else. Something less theoretical, also. We met each other in a hut on this small island in the Baltic Sea, and the question became do we stay on Bornholm or go somewhere else. And, I actually like nature a lot. I grew up on Bornholm. I have kids who enjoy nature a lot. Emmanuel, my husband, had moved away from Buenos Aires and actually liked being out of the big city and closer to nature. At the same time, we started seeing products made from industrial hemp in print shops around the island and then in Copenhagen. In the beginning, we were just curious and started studying this field a bit more to see what this hemp thing is. Also, on Bornholm, there's a lot of ideas of how to make the island more green, more organic. At that time, there was a work group called ‘Bright Green Island.’ The whole idea was how can we make the whole society more sustainable? So, we thought, okay, hemp is a very sustainable plant. It's one of the most sustainable crops that you can grow and there's a lot of potential products in the hemp. At the beginning, we were focusing on the food products. It's also very healthy. It's a product that you can defend 100%. It's climate friendly. It's healthy. It tastes good. And also, we wanted to get out and do something practical to produce something and see the result of our efforts, so to speak.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 6:27
And just double clicking on that, what is your business? What's the operation you run?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 6:38
Our main product is hemp tea. But we also started making some skin care products that are based on organic hemp seed oil. I have to say our niche product is hemp tea. We grow hemp tea in a biodynamic way. So, we have quite unique products that you don't find in other places, actually. The other companies in Denmark working with industrial hemp have focused on hemp seeds up until now. That is the hemp seed oil and the hemp flour. We also produce that, but we are focusing more on hemp tea.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 7:27
Before we go any further, I do want to clear up any doubts any listeners might be having around what hemp is versus marijuana and how we distinguish the two. Because industrial hemp is not marijuana, it's different. Do you want to say anything about that?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 7:46
Yes, I can do it. Industrial hemp is a plant in which you have taken out the THC. That is the component that can make you a bit stoned. It’s the psychoactive component in the original hemp plant. So, you take out the THC, but leave all the other good things in the plant. This means that you cannot get high from smoking the plant, for example. That is why it became illegal to grow it in the end of the 90s. In the 50s, I think it wasn't prohibited to grow the hemp plant, which has been a very common plant, also in the Nordic countries. But then, it was prohibited as some people started to smoke the hemp flower. With the development of industrial hemp, which does not contain any THC, it became legal to grow the plant again.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 8:57
And one thing to note is that in terms of the THC, I know in the EU that percent of THC content can be 0.3% or less. So, there's next to nothing there. If you're growing marijuana, it's 5 to 20% THC. From what I understand, it is actually very hard when you're growing industrial hemp to get higher levels of THC because you tend to grow the crops very close together. For some people, there's a myth where they think, "Well, if you're growing this, then it's naturally going to become something you can smoke and therefore it's dangerous." And therefore, it got a very bad reputation, but that is not how it works.
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 9:43
No, and I think there's few crops that get followed as intensely from various authorities when you're growing it because you have the Food Administration, the police, the medical authorities that are following all steps and you're not allowed to do anything before informing the Agricultural Ministry. You have to inform them about every step you're taking on the way. And they come visit also. I think they were in our fields at least three times during the summer to take tests to ensure that it is the right hemp, industrial hemp, that we are growing. And the Food Administration has been making tests for our final products as well. So, there's a lot of control actually when growing hemp.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 10:49
How does that compare to other farmers you know? Because one thing that is so unique about your operation, since you guys are a startup, is that not only are you a startup farm growing this novel crop - even though it's actually quite old and has been around in civilization for a long time - but it's considered new in terms of becoming legal again and people rediscovering its uses. So, how is it different for you growing this compared to other farmers when you talk about the regulation, how it's followed, and what you have to adhere to, to get this off the ground?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 11:23
I would say it's not that growing it is that complicated, but you have to know the rules and the legislation in this area. As long as you follow the rules, there's really not that many problems. But sometimes it can be a bit bureaucratic, but it's not because it's impossible. This year, for example, when we were harvesting we were told to leave quite big swells in the middle of the fields so that they could come and take tests of these plants. And it was not very practical for us when harvesting that we had to leave two squares measuring 20 meters on one side and 60 meters on the other sides in the middle of the field. So that was not very practical. There's small things like that. But really, if you follow the rules, it's not impossible.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 12:30
No. I think it is just misunderstood. And like you said, I can only imagine the amount of hours you guys had to put into learning the rules and understanding them and making sure that you double check and do the right thing so you don't end up in trouble.
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 12:46
But within these four years we've been working with hemp, it's my impression that people are getting more and more used to hemp products. There's been a lot of talk of medical cannabis also. That's another completely different field. But it's like people are getting more and more used to seeing products made from hemp including textiles and building materials. So, it's not that strange anymore. But sometimes we hear questions like "Are you sure there's no psychoactive components in your tea? And can I drive a car after drinking the tea?" At the same time, we get a bit surprised because now that we've been working with it for so long, we think that everybody knows the same thing that we know about hemp. It still takes some extra work to educate people in what kind of product it is that we're having, actually.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 14:01
Absolutely, and I think one of the big things that I've learned is that hemp is known to have over 25,000 different uses. Some people call it a miracle crop because you can use every single element of it. So, not only can it grow really fast, it can grow up to four times a year. It doesn't take a lot of water. It can grow in most climates. And then, I've read all kinds of different things around the different uses from hempcrete as a form of building material to bioplastics. You can also make alternative fuels for replacing petroleum. You can make paper products. You can replace cotton with different textiles. You have this medical aspect. You have the food aspect. So, it's pretty amazing in terms of what it is. And also, it doesn’t require pesticides, and that relates partly to the organic operation that you guys are able to do. Are you able to explain the different parts of the hemp plant and what the different elements can be used for?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 15:16
Yeah, we use hemp for food products. We use the green parts of the plant for tea. Then we use the seeds for food oil. And we press them to make hemp flour. So, that's three food products that we have. And then, from the hemp seed oil, we also make cosmetic products, cream, lip balm and soap. That's our products so far.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 15:51
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 15:54
We would really like to use the stems for building material, maybe. But we can also see that we know all these different products that the hemp potentially contains. But also, then you need the machinery to manufacture it afterwards. You need the space to be able to manufacture it, and we can see that it's actually complicated to make all these products even though you would like to do it.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 16:35
So, what is it that makes it complicated? And how does harvesting work?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 16:40
Yeah, we harvest by hand actually. The quality we get from that and doing it by hand you can say makes it even more sustainable. quality mark and then makes the tea even more sustainable. But I think, to be honest, it would be nice to harvest with a machine because it would be easier to scale up. We have been trying different machines during the harvest where we are living, and the problem is that the machines destroy the leaves. And since we're using the leaves for tea, it simply doesn't work. So, we can see that we get the best result harvesting by hand. So, we use all the green material for hemp tea. We buy the seeds, organic seeds, and then we press the oil ourselves from the seeds.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 17:42
Do you use any machine for that?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 17:44
Yes, we have an oil press machine. And after pressing oil from the seeds, you get a pressed cake. From this press cake, you can make hemp flour. And from these oils, we also make these cosmetic products.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 18:05
And how many hectares do you guys have? How big is your planted area?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 18:11
Oh, it's two hectares.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 18:14
And with that, how many times a year can you harvest? And how long does harvesting take? Are there differences in the harvests?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 18:21
Yeah, we can harvest once a year. But it's also because of the climate that we have here. I suppose if we're living in a warmer place, you can have it several times a year, but that's not possible in Denmark. So, we harvest once a year and since we're doing it by hand, we use more or less a month on harvesting.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 18:45
And I think you had mentioned to me that you need to harvest earlier than is typically designated by the government because of the nature of the product?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 18:55
Yes, we got an exemption, but also we had to apply for that and wait for it. You cannot just do what you want to do with the plant. So, we applied for it and we got it. Then, we were allowed to harvest it a bit earlier because we want the plant to be green when we harvest it. Most people wait and harvest later than us because they use the seeds for oil and the seeds are not mature or ripe when the leaves are ready to harvest for tea.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 19:32
So, the normal rule is that you have to wait until what point in the year to harvest or how do you know what the government said is the time where it's okay to start the harvest?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 19:42
I think it's about 12 days after the plant finishes flowering. But it's also a bit difficult because the plant does not necessarily grow in a very regular way in the field. You can see plants that are ready much earlier than other plants. I think sometimes, when the rules are made, they're made very far from the people who are working on the field and what makes sense sitting at a table, working at your computer, does not necessarily make sense when working with the plant.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 20:29
In terms of scaling up your production, one of the limits you mentioned is around the lack of machinery that might be on Bornholm and the capital expense it would cost you to get that there. I've also read that if you wanted to make textiles, there is no Danish or Scandinavian production of hemp for textiles. We used to have mills until 1972, and then when we joined the EU, we basically couldn't sustain that because other larger countries were better at doing it and it kind of disappeared. Now, there's some movement to bring that back and to create it again. I was also amazed to read that hemp has a long history in general where we can go back and see things like the Gutenberg Bible was written on hemp paper as was the King James Bible. Henry Ford made a Model T car in the 1940s out of hemp materials. And I read that in the Nordics, hemp seeds have been found in Norway dating back to the 5th century, 650 to 800 years after Christ. And then in Sweden, we know it goes back to the year 700. So, it's not that this is new. And I just want to point that out in terms of it making a come back and becoming very hip in the food world. People are touting it as a way for basically growing green, like it's a miracle crop for helping climate change. If you make something like hempcrete, you're going to take carbon out of the atmosphere. It also can replenish the soil. There's so many great things that come with this, and at the same, you can grow industrial materials. Like, this is going to replace so many things that have been polluting our environment. So, in terms of Denmark, what do you see happening now in the hemp scene or how could you describe that?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 22:33
Yeah. Actually, I think they just approved a big project where they’re going to try and make textiles from Danish hemp. There's a lot of things happening. So, I think that within a few years, you will also see Danish textiles made from hemp.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 22:59
Is there an association or a group of people who work with hemp? How is the community around this? Do people talk to each other? Is everybody doing their own thing? What does it look like?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 23:11
In Denmark, there's no association of companies growing hemp. But a few months ago, we talked with some other producers of hemp and actually we have some of the same challenges. Since we're not that many, we're maybe also competing a bit sometimes. I think it would be a good idea to cooperate more than we do right now.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 23:43
And you did mention that you have a biodynamic operation. So, I do want to talk a little bit about, again, the sustainability aspect of why the plant is sustainable, but two, how you also harvest it and work with it in a way that ensures it is sustainable in that sense too.
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 24:08
Well, in biodynamic farming you're not allowed to use any pesticides or herbicides. So, you can say that it's a very clean way of growing your crop. It's also a way of ensuring the biodiversity. For manure, we used seaweed this year. We also use some homeopathic mixtures to make the plant stronger, but you're not allowed to use any artificial fertilizer or anything. So, I would say it's a very clean way of growing things. And also, the single plant is seen as one organism that is supposed to function as a whole without having to bring things in from the outside. So, it is a balanced way of growing your land.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 25:32
And when it comes to continuing to grow your business, as we make new pathways when it comes to industrial hemp, what do you see as the main challenges that we're going to need to overcome?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 25:45
We hear a lot of scientists saying that it's a brilliant plant, and everybody should grow hemp. there's all this potential in hemp. But as a small scale producer, we can also see that sometimes it's difficult to sell the products. For example, it is actually difficult to make other companies come and play with you, so to speak. They all think it's a good idea, but who should put the money in the machinery? Or who should run the risk of making a new product? So, I think if we should really focus on changing things, also looking at it from the aspect of the climate in general, then it would be good to have some support from the outside, from the government, to encourage people to go in that direction. Right now, you need some good economy to do it actually.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 27:17
And in your case, you guys have self-financed everything, right? You haven't taken any outside capital or had any investors who helped you to get the land, get the machinery, even launch the e-commerce business?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 27:32
No, we did everything ourselves. Small steps at a time, building it up slowly because that's the way that we can do it. We are in a network of different entrepreneurs here on the island, and we can see that there's a lot of different ways of doing it. Some have the luck of having a really good economy and all the good machines from the beginning. Others ars taking small steps like us, but of course it is a slower process.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 28:09
When you say that it can be hard to get people to come play with you guys, is that because it's misunderstood or is it more that it's just risky? You know, starting anything is risky?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 28:22
Yeah, of course. Starting a business is always risky, I guess. I didn't do it before, but I think it is. I think you have to convince people a bit more when working with hemp and working with other products. That it's alright. You're not going in the wrong direction because you're working with hemp. Maybe we haven't normalized it enough yet even though I think most people would agree now that there's a lot of benefits from working with hemp.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 29:09
Yeah, I definitely think you guys are ahead of the curve here. So, moving into the final questions, and these are the questions that I ask everybody. The first one is, what is your vision for the future food system in 10 to 15 years?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 29:29
I think most people agree that we have some climate challenges in this world and we ought to change our food system in order to have a more balanced food production that is not that hard to the environment. Maybe more plant-based foods. I'm not a vegetarian. I think it would be difficult for me to live as a vegetarian, but maybe we should cut down a bit on the meat, eat more vegetables and crops that are absolutely more sustainable than other crops. And again, we know that hemp absorbs a lot of CO2 from the air during photosynthesis and is converted into oxygen. So, it's a plant that is good for the environment compared to other crops that exhaust the soil of the farmer. So, I think people are more aware of what is also called climate friendly food. And it could also, maybe get us to a more fair and balanced share of the goods that we have in this world.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 30:56
When it comes to achieving that vision, what are we missing to get there?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 31:00
I think that's also seen from the point of view of a small entrepreneur, but I think what many of us are dreaming of is a more cooperative way of thinking. We see that new initiatives are born from a more cooperative way of thinking actually. Organizations that are trying to gather small producers to sell their product. Actually, one of the challenges that you have as a small producer is that it's actually difficult to enter the bigger markets. You have to go through a wholesaler, and everybody has to gain something on the way. So, the producers end up left with almost nothing, even though he or she gets to sell their product. So, I see more and more initiatives and platforms, also on the internet. That's one of the good things about the internet, you can sell your products without paying a lot of wholesalers or other links on the way.I think that's also a way to encourage people to start smaller productions, which are also very often more sustainable than the big industrial production, actually.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 32:38
Yeah. It's such a good segway because my next question is, what kind of collaborations would you be looking for? This is an open platform. We have all kinds of people listening from all over the world. So, if you have any asks, or things you'd love to see, this is a good place to ask.
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 33:09
Yeah, that could be a lot of different cooperations, actually.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 33:12
List them all out. Nothing wrong with naming a bunch, because it always reveals where the challenges are that we can overcome if we work together.
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 33:19
For some, we would need the collaborator to be close to us. For example, if it comes to using the stems for different, other products, it's also a practical challenge of the machinery and these things. Another type of collaboration could be to make people more interested in our biodynamic hemp teas in order to have more places to sell our tea. Because it's obvious that you also need to sell your product in order to survive as a producer. We need to get out in the scene and to sell our product. And Bornholm is a very small island. So, the market of Bornholm also gets saturated when you reach a certain level. You need to go outside Bornholm in order to survive as a company.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 34:37
So, if I'm hearing you correctly, the two things that would help the most are people physically interested in getting into this business and want to move to Bornholm and go in on the economy of sharing some machines, there's a budding opportunity there. And two, anybody who can help you to enter and penetrate the market when it comes to getting to larger distributors and scaling the retail opportunity, that would be very helpful too.
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 35:06
Yes, yes, definitely.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 35:08
What advice would you have for someone who might want to be getting into this space? Like how much capital do you need? Or any other lessons you've learned where you'd want to pass it on and say, "I made this mistake, avoid that one."
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 35:31
Yeah, actually, we made a crowdfunding campaign in the beginning of our project. We did it to get more seen and discuss the idea. To see if there is any support or interest in a project like this. So, that was one of the purposes, and the other one was to gather some money. But it wasn't actually that much money that we gathered. I think it was 40,000 kroner. That you can use very fast, also. And then we applied for different funding. We got some funding, but also, as I said, we started very small steps at the time. We borrowed a kitchen actually in the refugee center on the condition that we would take some of the refugees with us as a kind of incentive to work in the hemp field. That was the agreement that these refugees would work with us, and we could borrow the kitchen in the refugee center. That was actually a very good and interesting experience. But it was also simply a way for us to start without having that much economy. And then, we rented a place after a year. We supported a small machine and then a bigger machine. It was a very slow process while also having other jobs at the same time.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 37:13
Did you have to buy land or were you able to grow it in your backyard, so to speak?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 37:18
Actually, we are cooperating with an older work colleague of mine from high school.He was a biodynamic farmer. That has actually been very good for us. He has all the agricultural knowledge. He's an expert on biodynamic farming while we know more about the hemp plant. We are doing the marketing, the development of products, but we're not farmers. So, it is very good to cooperate with him.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 37:50
Does it make it more economical to do everything yourself? Or is it because farming also has a pretty rough reputation these days, which is why I'm asking the question? It's rare that you meet someone who's newly getting into the business. So, how does one actually make this a good business for themselves so that we can encourage more people to become small-scale producers as you mentioned?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 38:19
I think it was important for us that we were able to work with this farmer. If we should go out and buy our own land, I think it would not have been possible for us actually. So, renting land is also good. What I see in Denmark is also more and more initiatives to do cooperative farming, actually sharing machines or just renting smaller pieces of land. Not having to buy 10 hectares, for example, and the house too. I think that is very good, actually.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 39:03
It's a very interesting idea to me to have entrepreneurs working with farmers and kind of giving a new lease on the land in terms of we'll take care of the business aspect and the marketing and you do production or product design, to really make a great product that can become something and put it in the market. So, I think that's wonderful that you're doing it and it really sounds like this business was somehow meant to be in terms of different elements falling into place that you were able to start your operation. My last question for you is, what's the best way for someone to get in touch with you if they have any questions or want to collaborate?
Signe Anker, Bornholmerhampen 39:49
Email is always a good thing. People are welcome to make a phone call, but sometimes we haven't got the time to answer. Our email is on our web page.
Analisa Winther, Nordic FoodTech Podcast Host 40:10
Perfect. Thank you so much for coming on and being so open and sharing your story.