Tennessee hemp farming is budding. Are farmers ready?
Kyle Owen, a tobacco farmer in Carthage, Tennessee, is starting to focus on hemp instead. And he’s not alone. The Tennessean
- More than 1,000 people have applied to grow hemp in Tennessee this year.
- But state officials encourage farmers to “do their homework” before they jump into the new industry.
More than 1,000 people have applied to grow hemp in Tennessee this year, the largest illustration yet of skyrocketing enthusiasm for the state’s newest cash crop.
But state officials worry some farmers might be diving into the industry unprepared. Ideally, hemp farmers should be contracted by a processing company before they plant hemp, otherwise they run the risk of having nowhere to sell their harvest.
Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Hatcher this week urged farmers to “identify a market and do their homework” before they invest heavily in a hemp crop.
“Just like with other agricultural enterprises, industrial hemp farmers will benefit from exercising due diligence and doing their research before they plant,” Hatcher said in a new release announcing the surging interest.
Hemp farmers must be licensed by The Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the deadline to apply to grow hemp is Feb. 15. The state had 44 licensed growers in 2015, 64 growers in 2016, 117 in 2017 and 226 last year. And now, two weeks before the deadline, more than 1,000 farmers have already applied for 2019 licenses.
Keith Harrison, assistant agricultural commissioner, said the department was “excited” that Tennessee was embracing hemp as a new crop, but urged farmers to take same caution they would use when diving into any new industry. Farmers should know, for example, that hemp is difficult to grow because no pesticides are currently approved for use on the crop and CBD hemp is notoriously laborious to harvest.
“As best I can tell, hemp production takes more labor than even tobacco does,” Harris said. “And I can tell you from growing tobacco, it’s really hard work and it’s not for everybody.”
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)
Hemp, which is closely related to marijuana but has no psychoactive effect, has been legal to grow in Tennessee for about five years through a closely monitored government pilot program. State records show that most licensed growers are small hobbyists, farming only a few acres, but commercial-scale hemp farming is rising quickly, in part because the industry is recruiting struggling tobacco farmers.
At least seven of the state’s top 10 hemp farmers come from tobacco-growing backgrounds, including the state’s biggest hemp growers, brothers Zeke and Eli Green, who said their family has grown tobacco for seven generations. Starting last year, the Green brothers are licensed to grow about 2,600 acres of hemp – more than the rest of the state combined – on their farm in Greenfield.
“For now, we are growing it like tobacco, because that’s what we know,” Eli Green said last year. “But we’ve already learned so much we will definitely do some things different next year.”
Hemp is generally grown in one of two forms: As a fiber in clothing, rope or construction materials or as a flower so it can be harvested for human consumption in CBD products. Farmers have said that fiber hemp is relatively easy to grow and that CBD help is difficult but vastly more profitable.
“The profit margins that we are hearing about – especially for CBD hemp – are unheard of,” said Kyle Owen, a tobacco farmer who has expanded into hemp. “Honestly, it sounds a little too good to be true.”
Hemp and CBD are driving a new farming industry in Tennessee, but state officials worry some farmers might be unprepared.