Natural Foods Merchandiser

40 Under 40: Mike Fata

Mike Fata
Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods and Oils
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Age: 32

Manitoba Harvest co-founder Mike Fata is happy that his hemp-foods business is finally enjoying success. The company has a broad product line, including hemp milk, hemp butter and hemp protein powder, and it boasts a brand-new, 20,000-square-foot certified-organic manufacturing facility in Manitoba.

But the road to success was not easy. When the company was founded in 1998, demand for hemp products was almost nonexistent, and hemp agriculture had endured a decades-long ban in Canada—a ban that continues in the U.S.

"We started the hemp industry," Fata says. "Hemp had just been legalized, but we had to develop the farming and production methods. When we were losing money, what kept us going were the phone calls about how we'd changed lives." The Manitoba Harvest Web site hosts testimonials about the benefits of hemp foods from a range of customers, from vegan moms to professional athletes.

In 2003, the Drug Enforcement Administration introduced regulations that would have banned the sale of hemp foods in the U.S. But in 2004, a U.S. court found that hemp foods are legal because they contain no THC, the active constituent in marijuana, hemp's distant cousin. Manitoba Harvest was involved with bringing a countersuit against the DEA finding.

Fata discovered hemp's beneficial properties in 1994. He was 18 years old, working construction, and weighed more than 300 pounds, but the diets he had tried emphasized a fat-free approach that nearly killed him. Researching nutrition, he learned about essential fatty acids, which led him to hemp foods. He slimmed down to less than 200 pounds and began pressing oil from hemp seeds to sell to health food stores in Winnipeg.

Manitoba Harvest is now a $6 million business—with 60 percent of sales coming from the U.S. market—and its 28 employees control the product from farm to finished package. Each year, more consumers discover that nature's perfect source of both protein and EFAs also has another benefit—it just tastes good.

What are the biggest challenges facing the natural products industry? The biggest challenge is simply growth. The rising demand for certified-organic products means that there's a challenge in sourcing organic ingredients, and it takes a lot of work to change farms over from conventional to certified organic.

As a little kid, you wanted to grow up to be…. I had a bit of a troubled childhood. But I knew I should keep all my doors open, and I still operate from that same directive. It's important to have a good imagination and be very opportunistic.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 8/p. 20

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