By Demi Lawrence - Staff Reporter for Biz Journal
When Tonia Farman ran Project Koru, a Hood River nonprofit supporting cancer survivors, Project Koru, she said the biggest lesson she learned was the importance of nutrition in preventing illness, and healing as well.
That was the inspiration of Queen of Hearts, Farman's food company that focuses on the power of nutritional hemp. Farman was drawn initially to hemp, specifically raw and shelled hemp seeds, around 2018 when she learned how nutritionally beneficial they are.
“We had these incredible chefs that would come to our camp and make wonderful plant-based and whole food meals, and these young adult survivors were just blown away, and you could just tell it was such a rejuvenating, renewing part of their healing process,” Farman said. Hemp hearts, as those seeds are called, are a source of essential amino acids as well as Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids that bodies need for everything from brain function to immune function and anti-inflammation. Not only that, but hemp is very sustainable, Farman said, making it a good starting point for her newfound passion. Out of that, Queen of Hearts released its raw hemp hearts, hemp protein powder and hemp seed oil. Though her products were popular, Farman said getting to the product phase was a challenge because of the regulations surrounding what hemp is and can be used for.
“There was no distinction on the regulatory side, initially, between growing hemp for hemp seeds for your smoothies, and CBD, medicinal hemp,” Farman said. “That really caused some initial problems because the farmers that are used to growing wheat, they would have to go get fingerprinted in order to grow hemp, and the fields would have to actually be tested for THC content.”
After a few years, Farman realized her business needed to expand beyond just raw nutritional hemp products. At the beginning of 2020, she partnered with the Food Innovation Center at Oregon State University and its director, Sarah Masoni, to create hemp-based salad dressings, and in 2021 Queen of Hearts released five dressings.
The release of the dressings is really what helped Queen of Hearts take off, Farman said. Since then, it has expanded its team to four full-time employees and a production team in The Dalles, but they’re still looking for a contract manager to help scale production.
Queen of Hearts is fully self-funded, Farman said, and while she is actively seeking out investments to help with the production scaling, she doesn’t want her business to grow too fast and become unsustainable.
“The capital required for growth is significant. These contract manufacturers, they might require a minimum order quantity of 20,000 units per SKU, and they might require that twice a year. We have five SKUs twice a year, well, that's about $170,000 twice a year. To fund that upfront is not something that I can do right now, so I have to find investment or funding for things like inventory or scaling, and that's kind of where I'm at right now,” Farman said. “It's a tough place to be and it's the scary decision-making time, like ‘OK, am I gonna pull the trigger on $350,000 or no?” The company has managed to get on shelves in stores around Portland like New Seasons and Market of Choice, and is sustaining Farman's hope for intentional, gradual growth, she said.