‘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
- 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.
Hemp-growing rules changing in Tennessee
Posted: Jun 4, 2019 / 03:45 PM CDT / Updated: Jun 4, 2019 / 03:45 PM CDT
A field of hemp or cannabis, grown increasingly as a mainstream crop in the UK and used for a variety of uses. Hemp has been used for industrial purposes including paper, textiles, biodegradable plastics, construction, health food, fuel, and medical purposes.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Rules for hemp-farming operations are changing to better serve hemp producers in Tennessee, the state’s Department of Agriculture says.
The application period for a license to grow hemp is now open year-round. Grower applications can be found online at www.tn.gov/agriculture/farms/hemp-industry.html.
Licenses will expire June 30 of each year, and all grower licenses issued in 2019 will expire June 2020.
Other program changes include:
· Hemp processors will no longer be required to register through TDA.
· The hemp program will no longer issue licenses for certified seed breeders. However, anyone manufacturing, distributing, or labeling seed should be licensed through TDA’s Ag Inputs section.
· Growers will still need movement permits when transporting rooted plants and are now required to be permitted when moving harvested hemp from their growing site.
“Farmers have been growing and researching this crop in Tennessee since the program began in 2015 as a pilot program,” Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Hatcher, D.V.M. said. “The hemp industry and federal laws have changed in recent years, and we’re updating our program rules to be more consistent with how other crop programs are managed.”
TDA has licensed more than 2,900 hemp growers in 2019. In 2018, TDA approved 226 hemp producer applications.
Federal and state laws require Tennessee hemp growers be licensed through TDA’s hemp program. While the 2018 Farm Bill removes hemp from the list of federally controlled substances, it remains illegal to grow hemp without a license through an approved state program.
Rules for hemp-farming operations are changing to better serve hemp producers in Tennessee, the state's Department of Agriculture says.