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Navigating the hype about hemp

Amidst the escalating enthusiasm surrounding this high-value crop’s potential, state industry specialists urge interested producers to proceed with
Story and photos by: Sarah Geyer 12/31/2018

 

Greenfield producer Michael Micheli harvests his first Tennessee hemp crop. He raised 500 acres, making him the second largest grower in the state.
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Hemp. What used to raise a few eyebrows now has the potential to fatten many Tennessee wallets.

Demand for hemp products, especially cannabidiol (CBD) oil, has skyrocketed. And a growing market requires a larger supply — and offers a larger potential for profit. In fact, some have dubbed industrial hemp as Tennessee’s next high-value cash crop, the spark needed to reignite small-acreage farms.

As the number of interested producers reaches record levels, state industry specialists stress cautious optimism and informed objectivity.

“There’s a lot of potential there for some farmers, but there’s also a lot of risk,” explains Eric Walker, assistant professor of plant sciences for the University of Tennessee. “Education is the key to maintaining perspective amidst the escalating hype and excitement surrounding hemp products.”

While buzz about the crop’s possibilities is relatively recent, individuals have been able to legally grow or process industrial hemp in Tennessee since 2014 through a licensing program administered by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA). The first few years of the pilot research and regulation program focused on helping farmers grow hemp for fiber and grain, commodities with a predicted, modest profitability margin.

In addition to the fibers and seed produced by the plant, hemp is also known for CBD, a substance purported to provide numerous medicinal benefits. While the U.S. marketed hemp products with fiber and grain, other countries were selling the high-valued oil, a byproduct of fiber processing.

But U.S. growers recently turned the tables on the CBD market. They have               identified hemp varieties that contain high concentrations of the substance. With that discovery, farmers can now grow hemp specifically for CBD extraction. Unlike hemp grown for fiber, a CBD crop offers the potential for high-value acreage — a cash crop that could rival the glory days of tobacco.

Tennessee legislators took note of the new hemp crop option, and in 2017, they expanded the state’s original Industrial Hemp Pilot Program, allowing farmers to buy noncertified genetics for CBD hemp varieties from other states. Applications for the program increased from 79 growers in 2016 to 226 the following year, placing Tennessee among the Top 10 hemp producing states in the country, says TDA’s Katy Kilbourne, a plant pathologist who works with state hemp farmers.

Based on attendance at informational meetings held across Tennessee over the past several months, grower and processor applications for 2019 are expected to triple last year’s total. It’s during these meetings that Walker and Kilbourne hope to arm interested farmers with the pros and cons of raising hemp.

“Our objective [during these meetings] is to give people as much information as we can,” says Walker, “and encourage them to carefully evaluate the rewards versus the risks of this new venture.”

Much of the risk revolves around the uncertainty that comes with a new crop, including the absence of labeled pest management materials and unproven non-certified seed sources.

However, marketing, says Walker, is his top concern for hemp growers.

“There are more markets now for the product than even a year ago,” he says. “But the producer is 100 percent responsible for finding them. There are risks with a contract; without a secured market for the crop, the risk for loss is extreme.”

To help mitigate this risk, Walker suggests potential growers obtain a contract before purchasing the first input.

“I realize this may not always be an option because some processors may be hesitant to contract with first-time hemp growers,” he admits.

Another challenge is the learning curve inherent with a new crop.

“Anytime you deal with a crop, it’s risky,” he says. “But for our established crops like soybeans and corn, we have identified good varieties, proven recommendations, and best management practices. With hemp, we’re still figuring all of that out, and getting to a place where a crop is optimized usually requires years of research.”

There are also legal risks related to the unregulated processing and production of CBD, says Walker, as well as the disconnect between state and federal laws and the high input costs required to raise and harvest this labor-intensive crop.

Tobacco farmers may find the best transition to growing CBD hemp, he says, because the crop management is similar.

“They have planters that will work with this crop, and barns where they can dry it,” Walker explains. “And just as important, they have the needed labor or have access to it.”

In Greenfield, native Californian Michael Micheli, along with his daughter, Jennifer; son, Jered; and daughter-in-law, Baylea, are completing their first hemp harvest as Tennessee producers. Elemental Processing Company contacted the seasoned farmer with an offer. They asked Micheli to apply his expertise in the midstate and join a group of farmers producing industrial hemp specifically for Elemental. Ready for a challenge, the family relocated to Weakley County, where they raised 12 CBD hemp varieties on 500 acres in 2018.

Micheli grew up on a farm, where his family raised several thousand acres of orchards and rice. He worked with the family operation until 20 years ago. He decided to chart his own agricultural trail as the state legalized the production of medical marijuana. Since that time, he’s focused specifically on raising various species of Cannabis, including hemp.

The farmer’s first priority was soil fertility, and he contacted Weakley Farmers Cooperative for help. The Co-op provided grid sampling and nutritional recommendations, including foliar fertilizers, plant growth regulators, and tissue testing.

“The Michelis also turned to us for equipment, tire service, and petroleum needs,” says Tommy Thompson, key accounts manager for Weakley Farmers. “That’s the thing about the Co-op system. As a full-service retail store, we can take care of nearly all our customers’ needs, and that means a lot to producers like the Michelis who are just getting started.”

Micheli mirrored a tobacco-farming model in planting and cultivating. During harvest, however, the farmer hired an innovative Colorado company to chop the plants into silage and then triple-wrap the bales, filling them with inert gases to extend storage time.

“It’s a game changer for us,” he says. “Next year we plan to use this method on 100 percent of our crops, greatly reducing the amount of labor needed at harvest.”

Micheli says he’s pleased with the results of his first Tennessee crop but the experienced hemp producer admits the region’s climate presented unique challenges.

“We’re used to working with no [pest management products], but there’s a lot more [insect] pressure here than what I’ve ever seen in California,” says Micheli. “We had a heck of a moth and butterfly blight that resulted in maybe 20 to 25 percent of the crop being lost to caterpillar damage.”

An equally concerning issue was the moist climate. Hemp is a plant that has been bred to thrive in dry climates, says Micheli, who emphasizes mold is a serious concern.

The region’s weather conditions wreaked havoc this fall, says the farmer, adding that hemp plants are extremely susceptible to mold when they are in full bloom and just about ready to harvest.

“I saw several varieties this year succumb to it,” he says. “And I saw some that were highly resistant, too. That’s what we’re working on now, breeding varieties that work for this area.”

Micheli’s breeding project reflects the collaborative efforts across the state. Through the pilot program, scientists with UT, Tennessee State University, and Middle Tennessee State University are combining their research with insight from farmers and agriculture specialists to identify varieties, best management practices, and marketing opportunities.

For those interested in growing or processing hemp in 2019, the application deadline is Feb. 15. Visit the TDA industrial hemp website at www.tn.gov/agriculture/farms/hemp-industry.html for information about the program including the application process, regulatory requirements, and a list of licensed processors.

Clearing up the confusion

Many people believe hemp (pictured left) is the same as marijuana. It’s a

reasonable assumption considering both are members of the same plants species, Cannabis sativa L, and are identical in appearance and similar in chemical makeup. But there is a difference between the two — marijuana contains concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that creates the substance’s psychoactive affects or the notorious “high” that the species is known for, while hemp carries very little of the substance.

Products labeled as hemp must test for THC levels of .03 percent or less. Instead of THC, hemp produces a high concentration of cannabidiol (CBD). The CBD compound, which will not cause a “high,” has recently skyrocketed in popularity due to its reported health benefits, which include treatment for pain, anxiety, depression, arthritis, sleep disorders, and skin conditions.

For many centuries, hemp was widely grown in the U.S., and at one point was the nation’s leading cash crop. However, the crop fell out of favor in the 1950s, when it was lumped in the same controversial category as marijuana. The ability to test for THC levels through advanced technology has allowed for the resurgence of the versatile crop.

In a first step toward legally differentiating the two plants, the 2014 Federal Farm Bill allowed state production of industrial hemp through regulated research projects. Today, Tennessee is one of 40 states to create a pilot program. Another step is on the horizon with the newly introduced Hemp Farming Act of 2018. If passed, it would advance legalizing industrial hemp nationwide.

 
 
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