Tennessee farmers legally produce industrial hemp for the first time in more than 70 years, battling weather and supply chain challenges — and learning a lot along the way
By Karli Petrovic
Much like coffee beans and tulips, some crops are simply better produced abroad. Industrial hemp is another plant that could fit this description — but not because of climate or growing conditions. Although it was once a major U.S. crop, hemp has been banned stateside thanks to the federal Controlled Substances Act and other regulations prohibiting the entire cannabis species.
Of the estimated 55,700 metric tons of industrial hemp grown around the world annually, China, Russia and South Korea account for 70% of the world’s supply, according to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
In fact, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that prohibits commercialized industrial hemp production. Hemp is used to create everything from textiles to beauty products. Although it lacks the psychoactive properties and high-THC characteristics of its cousin marijuana, the U.S. must rely on imports to meet hemp-product retail sales totaling an estimated $300 million each year.
However, despite reticence from the federal government, this is changing.
To date, 13 states — California, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia — have legal statutes to establish commercial hemp programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
Tennessee is one of the most recent states to pass such a statute. The state’s 2014 Farm Bill allows for industrial hemp production as part of a research or pilot project. For the first time in more than 70 years, Tennessee farmers grew hemp.
“Forty-seven farmers applied for more than 1,500 acres in the state (in 2015); however, due to various factors, only roughly 1,000 acres were tested by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture,” said Colleen Keahey, founder of Tennessee Hemp Industries Association, who explained that the seeds used were imported from Canada. Keahey said most of 2015’s crop was a trial of varieties from Parkland Industrial Hemp, Hemp Genetics International and EcoFiber.
Of the varieties trialed, Keahey said the Canda variety from Parkland Industrial Hemp performed best. The goal was to experiment with different seed varieties and determine which thrived in Tennessee’s climate and growing conditions. Because the U.S. had eradicated many of the hemp varieties that grew naturally throughout the country, Keahey said the crop needed to be imported and reestablished. Overall, farmers discovered that producing hemp wasn’t exactly easy.
“The myth about hemp being able to grow anywhere is just that,” said Harold Jarboe, chief operating officer for Still Point Farms and Cumberland River Hemp, two companies that grew 180 total acres of hemp for seed and extract.
“If you don’t do your fields right, you get dinged,” he said. “We went into it thinking research and development, and we still underestimated what it took to grow large-scale agricultural hemp. It’s trickier than soybeans and corn — but we learned.”
In addition to the challenge of growing hemp, Tennessee farmers faced other obstacles.
“The Department of Agriculture received shipments of seed later in the season than we had hoped, although all of our licensed growers were able to plant,” explained Corinne Gould, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
The Department of Agriculture applied to the Drug Enforcement Administration for a permit to import hemp seeds in November of 2014, but the DEA held out on issuing the permit until May 2015. This meant farmers were forced to wait until early June to start their crops, missing the ideal late April or early May planting time last year.
Aside from the governmental red tape, growers also had to contend with fickle Mother Nature.
“If you farm, you can do everything right, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate, you can’t grow,” Jarboe said, noting that the state experienced the wettest, coldest weather in 75 to 80 years.
The extra moisture meant many farmers, particularly those who were growing organic hemp, lost crops to weed pressure. Because there aren’t currently pesticides or herbicides approved for use on hemp, farmers were on their own with respect to weed management for johnsongrass and pigweed.
Jarboe said there was a lot of money lost in Tennessee, but also a lot of information gained in the process.
Some of the knowledge includes tricks of the trade, like planting denser crops and diversifying. Logistics, such as learning how to properly harvest hemp and finding processing facilities to handle the crop, will take longer to resolve.
Jarboe described the latter as a chicken-and-egg problem: Farmers need the processing plants to manage the finished crop, but companies won’t commit to building processing plants until the crop is grown well.
“It’s the Wild, Wild West when it comes to hemp,” Jarboe said. “There aren’t a lot of facilities and factories to take the product and do something with it. It’s expensive for farms to process the hemp themselves.”
While the inaugural year for Tennessee hemp sounds underwhelming at best, many accept that a learning curve was inevitable.
“I think I would have to describe the first year as historic,” Keahey said. “It was incredibly difficult and there were no guarantees. The first year is always a risk.”
Keahey said the pilot program was successful in weeding out varieties that won’t work, but it’s still too early to determine whether it’s worth the effort to continue growing industrial hemp in Tennessee. Although some farmers were disappointed with the results of 2015, many are dedicated to sticking with the program and helping it succeed.
“Growing hemp humbled us, and it made us dog-determined to do it better,” said Jarboe, one of the farmers committed to growing hemp again this year. “Deep down, farmers like making good food for people. Seed is very important to us, and the demand for seed will continue to grow.”
While Jarboe expects the third year — 2017 — will be the charm for Tennessee hemp producers, he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a banner year beginning this spring.
“Of course we’re optimistic,” he said, laughing. “We’re farmers.”