hemp growers in tennessee

‘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.

► Get the stories you want to read, delivered: Sign up for one of our newsletters

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

Tennessee Hemp History







In response to the 2014 federal Farm Bill, the 108th General Assembly of Tennessee enacted Public Chapter 916

regarding the growing of industrial hemp in Tennessee. The Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture promulgated regulations establishing a program of licensing authorized hemp producers.

Sec. 7606. Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research provides for the cultivation of industrial hemp for purposes of research by institutions of higher education or state departments of agriculture in states where it is legal. In May of 2016, state law was amended to allow for a processor license.

Industrial hemp is federally defined in the Agricultural Act of 2014 as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of not more than 0.3% on a dry weight basis.” However, industrial hemp also produces CBD, and there is no restriction on CBD concentration.

Tennessee’s Rich History with Industrial Hemp

Hemp has been an important crop throughout the history of the U.S., and to a certain extent in Tennessee.

By the mid-1600s, hemp had become an important part of the Colonial economy and was used to produce cordage, cloth, canvas, sacks and paper. In fact, the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were penned on hemp paper. Hemp was widely grown in Revolutionary War times, as it was strategically important for maritime use for lines, rigging, sail canvas and caulking on ships. George Washington encouraged hemp production and Thomas Jefferson bred improved varieties and invented a special brake for crushing the plant’s stems during fiber processing.

The history of hemp production Tennessee dates to the early 19th century with the arrival of pioneer families. Donald Winters, in his Tennessee Farming, quotes an East Tennessee report from the 1840s: “Hemp grows luxuriantly upon our River Bottom Lands, but has hitherto been neglected; although it is believed to be more profitable than any other crop that can be raised.” Winters writes that during the War with Mexico, the state legislature petitioned the U.S. government to help promote hemp production in Tennessee. In 1852 the Navy built a rope factory in Memphis with the intention of purchasing hemp from Tennessee and Kentucky growers, but the project was eventually abandoned.

According to the 1850 U.S. Census, Tennessee produced 454 tons of dew-rotted hemp and 141 tons of water-rotted hemp. The different methods refer to the way in which the components of the stalk were broken down and prepared for processing.

Tennessee’s first commissioner of agriculture, Joseph Killebrew, in his exhaustive Resources of Tennessee published in 1874, reported that hemp was widely grown throughout Middle Tennessee. Bedford, Coffee, Jackson, Marshall, Maury, Sumner and Williamson counties were particularly noted for having suitable soils for hemp production. In Maury County, hemp was used for ropes and bagging for cotton. “In response to this demand, hemp came to be one of the staple crops in Maury County, and rope walks and hemp factories were quite as common in the county as cotton gins are now,” according to the report. In the 1870 census, Sumner County (including present day Trousdale County) reported producing 150 tons of hemp. “In time, however, Missouri, Kentucky and other states entered the hemp field, and the competition became too strong,” Killebrew added.

Along with Missouri and Illinois, Kentucky farmers produced most American hemp until the late 1800s, when demand for sailcloth and cordage began to wane due to the arrival of steam ships. With the advent of mechanical means of harvesting and processing, Kentucky continued to lead in seed production and Wisconsin in fiber processing before and during World War II, when there was a brief resurgence in demand.

Although industrial hemp contains very little of the hallucinogenic properties of marijuana, production and processing declined after World War II with the passage of state and federal laws aimed at regulating the narcotic varieties of Cannabis. Its decline was further accelerated with the development and availability of cheap synthetic fibers. Also, the resurgence of cotton production in the deep South was likely a contributing factor to hemp’s decline.

Source: Except where otherwise noted, this information is based on “The Forgotten History of Hemp Cultivation in America” by Oscar H. Will III, November 2004