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Tough Row to Hoe So Far for TN Hemp

It’ll take time to overcome technological stagnation resulting from prohibition

Harvest time has come and gone for the second year of legal industrial hemp cultivation in Tennessee.

The non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana is billed as a potential boom crop in the 21st Century. It has numerous uses and applications as food, fiber, fuel and health remedies, as well as in construction materials, automobile parts, furniture and cosmetics.

But hemp’s potential has been slow to bloom in Tennessee since the state Legislature and federal government lifted the ban on growing it in 2014.

Sixty-four applicants across Tennessee gained approval by the state Department of Agriculture to grow hemp in 2016. As in 2015, licensed growers ran into headaches acquiring and sowing their seeds in a timely fashion.

Five permits were granted to Upper Cumberland growers, including one in DeKalb County and one in Cannon County for a total of four acres.

Seed Scarcities

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration tightly regulate and control industrial hemp cultivation. They require that seed be imported from outside the country and certified as capable of producing only miniscule amounts of THC, the naturally occurring chemical cannabis plants generate that gives people a “high” when ingested.

“Tennessee producers are growing seed from Canada, Italy and Australia this year,” according to a state agriculture department spokeswoman.

That’s neither sustainable nor conducive to long-term growth as a crop sector, said Clint Palmer, a Ph.D. student at Middle Tennessee State University who is working to expand industrial hemp’s presence in the state.

State agriculture officials are expected to release a report on this year’s hemp crop yields later this fall.

“Without having a domestic seed source, we are not going to be doing what we need to do,” said Palmer. “My goal is to create varieties for the state, which I hope is about a five-year process.” Seed that isn’t acclimated to this region won’t produce optimum yields, he said.

The other big issue is the question of what to do after harvest. Turning hemp into goods and materials for mass markets requires industrial processing, and that requires building infrastructure, which isn’t necessarily cheap.

“We are still struggling as an industry to be able to gain legs, and that is very unfortunate for us. We don’t have the infrastructure to support processing at this time — that’s pretty much where we are at,” said Colleen Keahey, director of Tennessee Hemp Industries Association. “We are waiting to see processing become available. We hope to start engaging with other agricultural industries to possibly partner together and see how we can resolve some these problems.”

A lack of processing and hemp-product manufacturing facilities is “the gaping hole” in plans for developing a successful cannabis sector in Tennessee agriculture, according to Palmer.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” he said. “We’re kind of in a waiting game right now. People are looking for investors, trying to grow the industry.”

Presently, growing hemp for extraction of therapeutic oils is the most profitable direction to take a crop at this time — although that sector is still obscured by regulatory and legal uncertainty. Furthermore, elevated profit levels for cannabinoid medicinal compounds aren’t likely to last as other states legalize and expand hemp production, said Palmer.

“They fetch a pretty price right now, but it won’t be like that forever,” he said.

Future Holds Promise

Despite the slow start for the reintroduction of hemp, there is nevertheless “reason for hope” that hemp will carve out a productive niche on the agriculture landscape, concluded University of Tennessee plant sciences professor Eric Walker in a 2015 analysis of hemp’s prospects for the future.

“Yields, quality and consistency of today’s predominant crops have increased drastically since their introduction; therefore, it stands to reason that the potential of industrial hemp in the United States is essentially unrealized, and as these research and applied processes of introduction, development, improvement, and refinement continue, industrial hemp yields and quality will only increase,” wrote Walker. “Likewise, if industrial hemp grain and fiber products are proven to be economically viable and sustainable, industrial hemp will again resume its status as an established crop in United States agriculture.”

According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, where hemp maintained a more prominent and indispensable role as a cash crop than in Tennessee prior to the criminalization of the cannabis plant family, China, Russia, and South Korea are the leading hemp-producing nations, accounting for more than two-thirds of the world’s industrial hemp supply.