All Decked Out

Eugene entrepreneur and longtime industrial hemp advocate Dave Seber hopes to make a little history today at Seattle’s HempFest, a pro-cannabis event expected to attract at least 175,000 people.

He will be introducing Hemp Shield, which he calls the “world’s first” hemp-oil deck sealer.

Hemp Shield is coming to market in an unconventional way, but it’s backed by traditional research and development, and marketed as an eco-friendly product.

Forrest Paint Co., a 37-year-old Eugene company that has developed other niche paint products, engineered the water-reducible Hemp Shield formulation, and has tested it extensively in its labs. Seber contracted with Forrest Paint to manufacture and distribute Hemp Shield, which is priced at $35 a gallon.

“In our tests, it outperforms all the other deck stains on the market, primarily for UV resistance — how well it holds its color after exposure to intensive UV light,” Forrest President Mark Forrest said.

Hemp oil historically was used in wood preservatives and coatings until the 1930s, he said, but he’s not aware of any other hemp-oil deck sealer on the market.

The hemp-oil deck finish, which soaks deeper into the wood instead of forming a film on the top of the wood, “tends to hold up better to foot traffic, standing water and other stresses on a deck coating,” Forrest said.

It’s also “greener” than other deck finishes because “of the sustainable nature of growing hemp,” he said. Another selling point is that it has zero hazardous air pollutants and is very low in VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, he said. VOCs can be a health hazard and can contribute to smog.

Something else Hemp Shield does not contain is THC, the pyschoactive substance that makes hemp’s cousin, marijuana, an effective drug.

Rather than downplaying the cannabis connection — both hemp and marijuana are varieties of the cannabis sativa plant — Seber plays it up by prominently displaying a green cannabis leaf on Hemp Shield’s label.

“We want this product to become a tipping point in the marketplace for the potential uses for hemp,” he said.

Forrest said the reputation of hemp is both an advantage and an obstacle. “Our goal here is to make this a mainstream product,” he said. “I think the performance of the product will help move it into the mainstream. It’s price-competitive with other similar products on the market, and yet it has that green advantage.”

After two decades of searching for financially viable uses for industrial hemp, primarily as fiber in construction materials, Seber believes he has hit on something big.

Water-based deck sealers are a $300 million-a-year market in the United States, he said.

“The reason why we focused on decks is because of the state of (the) construction (industry),” Seber said. “The truth is, if you have a deck, you have to reseal it every couple of years, so the demand for this isn’t going to go away. … We intend to market this all over the world.”

“If this works, I’m going to be an overnight success after 20 years,” Seber joked.

Hemp Shield could be the first in a line of hemp-based products that could bring jobs and income to the Eugene-Springfield area, he predicted.

“It’s not by accident that we’re doing this in Eugene, Oregon,” Seber said. “Because we’ve been a center for alternative culture for a long, long time, and we’ve been an advocate for the use of hemp and cannabis for a long, long time.”

“We think our time has come,” he said, with the market opportunity created by the convergence of consumer interest in “green” products; the economic downturn, which has spurred interest in new business opportunities and new crops for farmers; and recently passed legislation permitting Oregon farmers to grow industrial hemp.

Work still needs to happen at the federal level to allow farmers in Oregon and 16 other states that have passed similar laws, to plant their first hemp crop.

That could happen in two ways: Either the federal government changes its definition of marijuana to exclude industrial hemp, or federal drug enforcement authorities agree not to take action against growers of industrial hemp as long as they comply with their state’s laws, said state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, sponsor of the Oregon hemp legislation that passed last year.

“I would be somewhat surprised if we don’t see some change that’s going to allow for industrial hemp to be re­introduced as an agricultural commodity, as it was in the past, by the end of 2011,” he said.

Until Seber can source hemp seed locally, he is importing it from Canada.

Canada resumed legal production of hemp in 1998, and exports to the United States about 85 percent of the hemp seed grown there, said Christina Volgyesi, spokeswoman for the Hemp Industries Association, a trade organization with about 200 members nationwide.

Hemp products in the United States are a $400 million industry, she said.