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Govt Funded Vineyard Hemp Trial Leads To New Skincare Export

A new skincare line inspired by a government-funded hemp research project into the restoration of soil in vineyards has launched for the export market.

New industry figures show nutraceutical hemp could be worth $2bn industry to New Zealand.

Cosmetic brand Hark & Zander was founded after a successful trial into the use of industrial hemp as a way of improving soil quality and vineyard biodiversity was co-funded by Callaghan Innovation, the government’s R&D agency.

Company co-founder and Marlborough vineyard manager Kirsty Harkness first began looking at hemp as an alternative to seaweed fertilizers, effective microorganisms and estate-made compost which rejuvenate the soil but without taking nutrients or moisture from the vines or negatively impacting the grapes or wine.

Harkness first applied for a licence to grow hemp from the Ministry of Health three years ago and planted the mid-row cover crop in the vineyards.

She says the cumulative years of soil compaction and nutrient deficiency take its toll on the health of any vineyard and it's important to ensure the life cycle is not just sustainable but also regenerative.

“I had trialled, blue borage, red clover, phacelia and buckwheat as cover crops in the vineyard but it wasn’t until I looked at hemp as not only a way of breathing life back into the soil but also as a potential secondary revenue source that I really got excited.

“In the same way the human body needs to be healthy to be resistant to disease and infection, the soil also responds to this methodology. Once we were confident the hemp wouldn't take nutrients or moisture from the vines, we began looking at the potential benefits of hemp for the body as well,” she says.

Harkness, who started her career as a registered nurse, says the success of the trial has been significant - attracting international interest and the results of the research have been analysed by a local scientist and are set to be published in a leading North American viticulture journal in 2021.

She says she began to consider how efficacious hemp could be on human skin and the body after a search for products to help ease her own allergic reaction to some skincare products identified an opportunity. The new venture under the brand name Hark & Zander was then formed with business partner Gabrielle Zander, a specialist in blending essential oils for skincare.

Harkness says the hemp seed goes through a special filtration process to produce a clarified oil with a golden colour.

“Our first efforts to filter the seed resulted in a green coloured oil and so we are now working with a team in Wanganui, which uses the first machine of its kind in NZ to de-hull, remove any sediment and produce a cold-pressed, clarified oil in the golden colour hue we love - which means we can produce a locally made product without needing to import it.

“Our first product, a 100% natural Hemp-Tonic Face Oil contains nine vitamin-rich plant oils such as Hemp Seed Oil, Sweet Almond Oil, Jojoba Seed Oil, Evening Primrose Oil, Squalane and Grape Seed Oil. The future range is 15 products strong, and we aim to release a new one each month. These will be sold through retail stores and online channels,” she says.

Harkness who is on the NZ Hemp Board (NZHIA) and a government hemp committee says interest in growing hemp has increased significantly in the past three years with the number of New Zealand hectares increasing tenfold from 200 to 2000 over this period.

She says the Hark & Zander company name is being trademarked in China, Australia, USA, Europe and the UK with a second stage to include Canada and Japan.

“The skincare line was an extension of the realisation of the restorative properties of hemp, particularly when combined with other active essential oils.

“There is a significant segment of the global cosmetic market for which natural and sustainably sourced skincare products are prized and being able to source these from New Zealand provides us with a significant advantage.

“We are also working to keep the business as environmentally friendly as possible, so that means sourcing local ingredients, along with recyclable glass bottles, aluminium caps and backyard compostable postage bags,” she says.

Harkness says one of the big growth barriers the hemp product industry has to overcome is the inherent confusion with recreational cannabis.

“Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant species but it is grown for industrial uses and contains negligible amounts of the psychoactive compound THC.

“However even just an image of the plant seems to be enough for social media sites to block our marketing efforts on that platform - including promoting a recent hemp innovations weekend which covered creating building materials from hemp biomass.

“For New Zealand to take full advance of the billion-dollar export potential of hemp, we are going to need to work to grow mainstream acceptance of a product which was first used for industrial purposes thousands of years ago,” she says.

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