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‘A new gold rush’: Tennessee hemp farming rises 1,100% in one year. Is it growing too fast?

Kyle Owen, a tobacco farmer in Carthage, Tennessee, is starting to focus on hemp instead. And he’s not alone. The Tennessean

Story Highlights

  • More than 2,600 farmers are licensed to grow hemp in Tennessee this year.
  • At least five farms are licensed to grow more than 1,000 acres of hemp.
  • Some veteran farmers worry newcomers are in over their heads.

More than 2,600 Tennessee farmers and businesses are licensed to grow hemp or CBD this spring — an increase of more than 1,100% in just one year.

But some experienced farmers say the state’s newest cash crop is growing too fast. After years of pioneering Tennessee hemp, they say newcomers might be overextended and unprepared for the pitfalls of the alluring-yet-difficult crop.

“It’s like a new gold rush, and that’s not really a good thing,” said Bill Corbin, a Springfield farmer who is one of the veteran hemp growers in the state. “When that many people come into play so quickly, there are so many naive and gullible growers that are going to sign up with people who will promise them the moon.”

Nilba Maldonado strips hemp plants at the farm of Bill Corbin, a Tennessee tobacco farmer who expanded into hemp five years ago. (Photo: Brett Kelman/The Tennessean)

The dramatic surge in hemp farming was revealed this week in documents The Department of Agriculture released in response to a Tennessean public records request. Licensing data shows shows that most new hemp farmers are growing on less than 5 acres, but commercial-scale farming has also surged.

Hemp, which is similar to marijuana but does not contain the chemical that causes a high, is legal to grow in Tennessee through a government pilot program. Hemp is generally grown as a fiber to make cloth, rope and construction materials or as a flower that produces cannabidiol, or CBD, which is advertised as having broad but often-unverified health benefits. Despite the uncertainty of these claims, a nationwide market for CBD is booming, creating attractive profit margins for farmers who embrace hemp.

Hemp and CBD products for sale at LabCanna in Nashville. (Photo: Mark Zaleski/ The Tennessean)

And the results are clear. Tennessee had only 44 licensed growers in 2015, 64 growers in 2016 and 117 in 2017. Last year, 226 farmers grew a combined 4,700 acres, and a majority of that acreage was farmed by brothers Zeke and Eli Green, one of the few commercial operations in the state.

Not anymore. According to the new licensing data, at least 37 Tennessee farms are now licensed to grow 100 acres or more of hemp, and five farms are licensed to grow more than 1,000 acres.

In light of this rising industry, some experienced hemp growers worry that new farmers might be getting in over their heads. Although the market is booming, CBD hemp is notoriously expensive to grow and the farming has to be done entirely without pesticides because none have been approved for use by the federal government.

Billy Wall, a who farms 70 acres of hemp in Franklin and owns a hemp processing lab in Murfreesboro, said his company Benmar Extractions has been leading seminars for new hemp growers, encouraging them to play it safe.

Wall said his best advice is also simplest: Start small.

“This industry is going to continue to prosper for years, and if they start small and learn how to do it, they will achieve great success,” Wall said. “But if they come in too big, and then find out how difficult it is, a lot of them will fail.”

UPDATE: The names of farmers identified as the biggest hemp dealers in Tennessee have been removed from this story due to questions about the accuracy of data provided by the state government.

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Some veteran Tennessee hemp farmers worry that newcomers will get in too deep and fail.

Getting Started

TENNESSEE HEMP HISTORY

GETTING STARTED

2019 HEMP LICENSE

SEED + CLONE ACQUISITION

HEMP PROCESSOR LIST

GROWERS INFORMATION

1. Who can grow industrial hemp, where can it be grown and is there a size or zone requirement?

Anybody can apply to grow industrial hemp except one who has been convicted of a felony for controlled substance in the past 10 years. Anyone who has been issued a hemp license can grow on the approved growing areas indicated on their application. Licensed industrial hemp can be grown anywhere, indoor or outdoor. The research pilot program allows for any size growing area, from large acre lots to small garden sizes. There are no zoning requirements for a hemp license.

2. How do I get an industrial hemp growers and/or processor license?

Applications and registration for an industrial hemp grower license and processor registration must be submitted during the open application period. The next application period will open on November 15th and will close February 15th. Your application must be complete, you must submit an aerial photograph of the growing area and payment. License fees for an industrial hemp growers license is $250-$350 depending on the size of the growing area. There is no fee for processor registration.

3. Do I need to register as a processor?

Maybe, processor registration is required for processing industrial hemp. Processing means to treat or transform harvested industrial hemp from its natural state for distribution in commerce. You do not need to register for personal use only.

4. When are licenses mailed out?

Licenses for industrial hemp growers are mailed on March 1st. Growers are not licensed until they have received a growers license.

5. What does viable and non-viable mean?

Viable hemp is material capable of reproduction including; seeds, seedlings & clones. Non-viable material is not capable of reproduction, which includes stalks, leaves, and flowers.

6. Do you know anyone who can consult with me on how to grow?

The TNHIA is a resource for assistance as well as UT extension offices in your county.

7. Where do I find seeds or seedlings?

Individuals are responsible for sourcing their own propagative material. TNHIA is a great resource. All seed or plant material being brought into the state must have prior approval by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA). Please use our seed and propagule acquisition forms to request approval. If importing from another state use this link: https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/agriculture/documents/planthealth/Domestic_Seed_Import_Requirements.pdf

With your seed or plant acquisition request, you must submit a copy of your industrial hemp growers license, the industrial hemp license for the firm providing the seed and third party test results showing the variety is below the .3%THC threshold. If you want to grow and sell clones, you must provide documentation of permission from the source that allows for replication of those genetics. All seed and clones being brought into the state or leaving the state must be shipped or brought DIRECTLY to the Tennessee Department of agriculture for inventory . Movement permits are required to track the purchase or movement of industrial hemp seed, seedling and clones (viable material).

8. What is the inspection process like?

Every crop grown and every variety may be inspected and sampled by a TDA plant inspector prior to harvest. The grower should contact TDA 30 days prior to harvest for inspection. The license holder is responsible for paying all fees associated with the sample. Each sample is $150. Please keep in mind that the way you set up your production method, may influence the number of samples required to represent the amount of material being produced. Growing multiple varieties will also increase the sampling cost.

9. Can I send off samples to get tested on my own?

Yes and TDA encourages self-monitoring of industrial hemp crops. A google search will give you multiple options. Contact a lawyer for legal advice about sending samples across state lines. Also, please note that 3rd party test results do not replace sampling conducted by TDA.

10. What can I do with my harvested crop?

Viable industrial hemp must only be transferred to a licensed pilot program participant. Non-­viable (not able to develop, grow, or survive) industrial hemp is not regulated by the TDA.

Source: Tennessee Dept of Agriculture Website

Getting Started TENNESSEE HEMP HISTORY GETTING STARTED 2019 HEMP LICENSE SEED + CLONE ACQUISITION HEMP PROCESSOR LIST GROWERS INFOR MAT ION 1. Who can grow industrial hemp,