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Mike Fata: Hemp food maker grows a new industry

Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods co-founder Mike Fata has worked around perceptions of hemp by pitching a simple message: ‘Our products taste good, are easy to use and are good for you.’

JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

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For many people, innovation can be defined as expediting processes, breaking through barriers or developing new technology. For Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods co-founder and chief executive officer Mike Fata, though, innovation has a far broader reach.

"Ultimate innovation for us is creating something out of nothing, and we speak to a number of points of how we've done that, and the big one is creating a new industry out of nothing," he says. "We take that into every single day of new product creations bringing world firsts to people, like hemp protein powder, or hemp hearts or hemp milk ."

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In its 16th year of operation, Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods, based out of Winnipeg, owns approximately 65 per cent of the Canadian market share for hemp food products, and is the first hemp food manufacturer to achieve British Retail Consortium certification in recognition of the products' quality. Mr. Fata attributes the company's dominance to its continued investment in innovation.

"We've developed proprietary processing technology specific for hemp that wasn't available before, so that's another one of our strengths from a scale of operation," says the 38-year-old Mr. Fata. "We just finished an expansion, putting another $6.5-million of equipment in our facilities, so we've made the investment over the years, both in technology, from the PhDs and the other research scientists that are involved in the company developing process, and then in testing that equipment."

Mr. Fata, who was born in Thunder Bay before moving to Winnipeg at a young age, is fully invested in the products he sells, having used the benefits of hemp foods and the good fats they provide to get a grip on his own health and weight, which reached 300 pounds as a teenager. But the word hemp still produces many negative connotations to a lot of would-be consumers, and so awareness is still key to the company's long-term business plans.

"Changing a consumer's perception is very challenging, so over and above introducing something new to them, we had that as an obstacle because hemp and marijuana are both relatives in the cannabis family," Mr. Fata says. "So our technique has been pure education and making sure that people really knew and that's why we simplified it down to: our products taste good, are easy to use and are good for you."

Those selling points weren't enough to persuade U.S. authorities of hemp's merits when Manitoba Harvest started exporting south of the border in 2001, and the Drug Enforcement Agency moved to ban hemp altogether. But, along with the Hemp Industries Association and another couple of manufacturers, Manitoba Harvest took the DEA to court and 2 1/2 years later finally won its case to sell product south of the border in 2004.

"It's really opened up the marketplace, or at least made it okay to talk about hemp foods," Mr. Fata says. "So that was a big milestone, and over the last 10 years it has really paved the way for the U.S. just to continue to open their doors from a trade standpoint and also from a consumer standpoint to welcome hemp foods into their businesses and into their diet."

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