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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.

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

Story Highlights

  • 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.