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.

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

Hemp’s Legislative Voice

The Tennessee Growers Coalition (TGC) is a non-profit, non-partisan Political Action Committee (PAC) supporting pro-hemp advocacy, awareness and legislation. The TGC works to establish permanent viability for hemp farming by mobilizing an active coalition of legislators, regulators, farmers, processors, manufacturers, retailers, industry leaders and trade associations. Through grassroots advocacy, fund-raising efforts and educational outreach, the TGC collaborates with lawmakers and voters to create a progressive legal and regulatory framework for all hemp industries and hemp-derived products.

Hemp Consumer Protection Act of 2020 SB1944/HB2054 – by Rep. Bryan Terry, MD (R-Murfreesboro) and Senator Richard Briggs, MD (R-Knoxville)

The goal of this legislation is to establish consumer protections for persons subject to drug screening and to define reasonable levels of THC in blood, urine or other sampling methods for those regularly consuming legal hemp and hemp-derived products.

Presently, citizens consuming legal hemp products may test positively for THC, despite products with trace THC (less than 0.3%) being perfectly legal.

This bill specifies that hemp and products derived from hemp, other than isolated THC, are not subject to scheduling as a controlled substance and are not subject to forfeiture based solely on their composition

Prohibits police searches based solely on the odor of cannabis

2019 Legislative Successes

TN Public Chapter 303 of 2019 amended the Prevention of Youth Access to Tobacco and Vapor Products to define and include smoking hemp, making it illegal for minors to purchase or possess smoking hemp products.

This is also a big win for Tennessee farmers! Hemp flower is good for the farmer because it’s a viable alternative crop to tobacco.

The market for smokable hemp flower is projected to grow to $70.6 million in 2019, up from $11.7 million in 2018.

TN Public Chapter 87 of 2019 updates Tennessee law to comply with the 2018 Federal Farm Bill. This law deletes and replaces the 2014 hemp pilot program created by USDA since hemp is no longer is a controlled Schedule 1 drug.

As dictated by the legislation, The Tennessee Department of Agriculture under the direction of Commissioner Charlie Hatcher has submitted its application to USDA seeking primacy over our state’s hemp program.

Further, the statute required the Commissioner to issue emergency rules to govern the program given the new federal guidelines. The Commissioner’s emergency rules were reviewed on August 21 by the General Assembly joint, government operations committee and were recommended unanimously to become permanent without amendment.

Hemp’s Legislative Voice The Tennessee Growers Coalition (TGC) is a non-profit, non-partisan Political Action Committee (PAC) supporting pro-hemp advocacy, awareness and legislation. The TGC