East Tennessee’s Hemp Pioneers Attempt to Grow a New (and Newly Legal) Cash Crop

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Tucked in the hollows of Cocke County about an hour east of Knoxville, where rolling Tennessee hills meet the peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains, Charles Mason has turned his lush-green farmland into a testing ground. The 67-year-old cattle rancher, real estate investor, and sometimes-farmer took a chance this year planting a new, experimental crop he hopes will bring a big return when harvest rolls around this fall—and in the years to come—but it’s a gamble that may net him little more than headache.

“When I first heard about it, well, I guess I just looked at dollar signs,” Mason says with a smooth, Southern drawl. “If it yields what it’s supposed to, I feel it could be a good cash crop for a lot of people, and maybe it’s something that can help my son maintain the farm.”

Spriggy upshoots with slender five-point leaves now cover fields long reserved for grazing cattle or staples like soybean, hay, or tobacco. The sweet, skunky smell these plants give off drifts out over the barbed-wire fencing and security gates that cordon off the property and down desolate backcountry roads where every neighbor seems to know every other. Clouds still cling low to nearby mountaintops on a cool September morning as Mason steps from his silver Chevrolet truck on a winding gravel road that leads into his 143-acre property. He likes to joke that he lives on the golf course, and today he looks dressed for a casual round on the links in a dark polo shirt, loose-fitting khakis, and a pair of penny loafers he says he doesn’t mind getting dirty. But right now, it’s all about business. He’s out to meet a state inspector who will test three fields of this new crop to ensure it doesn’t attract attention from law enforcement or run afoul of carefully-worded state law that cleared the way for its cultivation.

Charles Mason sees potential in hemp as a cash crop for Tennessee. He planted about 60 acres this year in Cocke County, which he plans to harvest for fiber and oil. Hemp farmer Charles Mason. Photo by Clay Duda

Mason is growing one of the state’s first legal industrial hemp crops in more than 70 years. That’s right, weed’s cousin is now legal in Tennessee—at least for industrial farming and use in manufactured goods, with plenty of restrictions attached. He signed up this spring, along with nearly 50 others across the state, for a tightly-regulated Tennessee Department of Agriculture pilot program to try a hand at growing the state’s inaugural crop. Out of 12 people growing in East Tennessee, Mason’s spread is by far the largest at 60 acres, and he’s the only local growing on a commercial scale.

RELATED: Photo Gallery: Industrial Hemp Takes Root in East Tennessee 

Bills reclassifying hemp away from its notorious relative, marijuana, and setting up guidelines to grow it for research purposes (although farmers are still free to sell their crop after harvest) sailed through a staunchly conservative state Legislature last year. Key lawmakers say they were looking to give local farmers a competitive edge in this new realm of agriculture that many believe is poised to take off in the United States, potentially giving rise to a multi-million-dollar industry. Sponsored by East Tennessee legislators Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, and Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, the hemp bills met little to no opposition, passing with unanimous approval in the Senate and a 88-5 vote in the House of Representatives.

“This, to me, is a farming issue,” Niceley says, adding that even he was surprised the bill passed the first time it was put up for a vote. “Since the Republicans have taken over down there (at the state capitol), we pass bills that give freedoms back to people. I saw Kentucky trying to legalize hemp and realized that we can grow anything they can grow, and if this industry is going to come about there might be a need for more hemp than one state can provide, so I dropped the bill.”

Hemp has long earned a bad rap due to its shared characteristics with marijuana, but more than a dozen states have now legalized it for commercial or research purposes. Both hemp and marijuana are types of cannabis, yet hemp contains minuscule amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that makes people feel high, and the state tests regularly to make sure of it. Faison admits he was pretty ignorant about the nuances of cannabis until a friend called him a few years back and started talking up hemp, but now he recognizes that it has benefits, he says, and others with traditionally conservative values are also coming around.

“I think there’s a clear distinction between both forms of the cannabis plant (marijuana and hemp), but both forms have massive benefits to our lives and the environment we live in,” he says. “In my opinion the cannabis plant is just about the most beneficial plant God gave us. I want to continue Tennessee opening up its views to the cannabis plant, be it medical marijuana or industrial hemp.”

But after decades of being outlawed, few people today know much—if anything—about growing hemp in Tennessee. There are no pesticides or herbicides rated for its use, no processing facilities or established markets to take it after harvest, no legacy seeds or best practices, and the federal government still lumps it with other illegal narcotics, though it has lightened up some in recent years. Many people do see potential in its plethora of uses and the more than $500 million global hemp market, and for farmers struggling to hold on to their way of life—and for others intertwined with the plant’s future—getting in on the ground floor of an industry that could take off (again) in the United States was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Yet, the plant is still technically illegal, and experts say the industry still has a ways to go before hemp transforms into a viable cash crop. Can these early pioneers survive this start-up environment and give rise to a new industry in Tennessee, or will their struggles be for naught as the cannabis plant continues its tango with the federal government and the realities of farming economics set in?

Industrial hemp growing in Cocke County, Tennessee. Photo by Clay Duda.Photo by Clay Duda

HEMP RISING?

Judy Jones sees benefits in hemp and other uses for the cannabis plant, though she’s quick to draw a distinction between hemp—with no psychoactive properties—and medicinal marijuana. Jones is not a farmer, but her interest in the plant’s future led her to apply for a TDA permit to grow 50 acres of hemp this year in East Tennessee. (She asked that her exact location not be published due to safety concerns.)

“I’m very interested in the oils and such, and the byproducts of the hemp stalk because it has so many uses. In Kentucky, they’re already using it as bedding for horses and other animals, then there’s hempcrete, which is kind of like concrete but instead of using rocks it’s using hemp and lime,” Jones says. “It’s an amazing product. People need to kind of get past the ‘getting high’ thing and start using hemp for the thousands of uses it has.”

Like some other first-time Tennessee hemp farmers, this year Jones didn’t plant as much as she planned. Instead of 50 acres, she seeded just two, mainly due to the issues of getting seeds in and hiring help to plant. She’s also learning as she goes, basically putting out the seed and watching it grow. What happens next is… well, that’s the next thing to learn. Jones and other small-time growers will likely harvest and cure their crop by hand, then look for an outside organization to process it into fiber and hemp oil. Or she may just sell it in bulk through a cooperative taking shape with the Tennessee Hemp Industries Association, a local chapter of a national non-profit pushing hemp legalization and market development.

Mason, too, still isn’t 100 percent sure of exactly what he’ll do come harvest time. He’s looking to reap his acres with a combine machine, then dry the plants in a rented building before processing them. He may buy a press to extract seed oil, or he may look to send it off to an out-of-state facility for processing this year. The only problem is, the hemp must first be processed to a certain extent before legally being allowed to move across state lines. Even moving it off his property requires a permit by the TDA, which farmers may appreciate if the boys in blue pull them over on the way to market.

Then, after processing, they’ll need to find a buyer for whatever product they’re selling. That may be easy, but many officials say it’ll likely take time for a reliable market to develop. Jones says she hopes to produce high-quality oil, which could be used for medicinal purposes, though TDA officials note that, without approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration, farmers must be careful not to label oil for human consumption. The North American Industrial Hemp Council estimates there’s more than 25,000 products that can be made with hemp, including furniture, textiles, car parts, construction material, food, and beverages. But while other countries around the world have continued using it over the years, farming, processing, and manufacturing knowledge has stagnated in the U.S. since it was made illegal in the mid 20th century.

Hemp seed can be a food source, and hemp farmers in Australia, where growing the plant for fiber is legal, have been pushing the government to clear it for human consumption. Advocates there estimated a $1 billion global market for hemp food, the Newcastle Herald reports. Its fibers are also rising in popularity for use in construction materials such as hempcrete (similar to concrete), insulation, and auto parts. German car companies have more than tripled their use of natural fibers, including hemp, to about 15,500 tons since 1999, according to ABC News reports. Those fibers, mostly used to make plastics, are often lighter and sometimes stronger than synthetic and metal-based components. In recent years French automaker Peugeot S.A. has stepped up its use of hemp as a replacement for fiberglass in some components, such as mirror and windshield wiper mountings, according to a company announcement. It mentions that the use of hemp and other natural fibers isn’t exactly new in the auto world:

“It was actually done in the U.S.A. by Henry Ford while hemp was legal in 1941,” a spokesman notes. “The experimental model’s body was 70 percent made of fibers from field straw, cotton fibers, hemp, and flax. The other 30 percent consisted of soy meal and bio-resin fillers. Ford’s successful prototype was tagged as the vegetable or hemp car.”

COVER_0924_Hemp13TDA plant inspector John Rochelle cuts samples from a hemp field in Cocke County to test THC levels. Photo by Clay Duda

POTENTIAL IN THE PAST

Processed hemp isn’t illegal in America, but growing it has been since 1937 when Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, legislation that essentially banned cannabis cultivation following a national anti-drug campaign against “devil weed” and heavy lobbying from businessmen with ties to the paper industry, according to multiple reports.

“The mythical connotation that all hemp is narcotic arose in the 1930s in great part through an active campaign engineered by William Randolph Hearst and Harry Anslinger,” writes Sterling Evans in his 2013 book, Bound in Twine. “Hearst worried that hemp fiber could replace wood pulp, of which he had huge land holdings and investments for his newspaper, the New York Journal. Anslinger, essentially America’s first ‘drug czar’ … combined his family connections to DuPont Chemical (which had recently produced a new chemical treatment process for converting wood pulp to paper) and his government position to outlaw the growing of hemp.”

Racial and economic tensions also played a role. A perceived link between marijuana and crime rose in the American conscience in the years following the Mexican Revolution in 1910, when many Mexican immigrants—some who used the marijuana recreationally—flooded into the states, according to a PBS Frontline report. With the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, anti-immigrant sentiment intensified as many more Americans worried foreigners would snatch up jobs during a time of mass unemployment.

Before the early 20th century, however, America’s history was very much intertwined with the hemp plant. The United States Constitution was drafted on hemp paper, the first flag was sewn of hemp fiber, and a number of the country’s founding fathers—including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—grew hemp and encouraged others to do the same. In 1619, the Virginia Legislature even passed a law mandating that every farmer grow hemp, which at the time was allowed to be exchanged as legal tender in that state as well as Pennsylvania and Maryland, Frontline reports. It eventually earned the nickname of “Kentucky hemp” due to its popularity among farmers there in the 18th and 19th centuries, Evans writes.

Hemp saw a brief resurgence in the U.S. during World War II when the federal government launched a “Hemp for Victory” campaign aimed at boosting production of ropes for ships. But in recent times, America has imported its hemping needs mostly from our neighbors to the north in Canada, where it’s been legal to farm since 1998. The United States brings in an estimated $580 million worth of hemp annually, according to a 2015 study by the Congressional Research Service. The idea that money flowing to Canada could be made local is, in part, what motivated Tennessee Sen. Niceley to introduce SB 2495 last year, he says.

“No one could ever explain to me why an American farmer couldn’t raise a crop a Canadian farmer could,” Niceley says, “It (the prohibition of hemp) was almost like a protection bill that protected Canadian farmers from honest competition with American farmers.”

Thus far, 13 states have approved statutes allowing the commercial sale and production of hemp, including Tennessee, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The others are California, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia. Seven other states have programs limited to research, including Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, and Utah. For its part, the federal government still classifies hemp with marijuana as an illegal narcotic, but it has loosened restrictions slightly in recent years. Early last year Congress approved the Agricultural Bill of 2014, which, among other things, defined industrial hemp as cannabis with less than .3 percent THC (marijuana is usually upward of 5 percent THC) and authorized universities and state agriculture departments to conduct hemp research and pilot programs.

Those federal provisions are key when it comes to hemp in Tennessee. All farmers growing hemp in the state are technically conducting research as part of the state’s pilot program, but there is no limit to how long a pilot program may run or how many acres are sown for research, TDA officials say. The state will likely keep issuing licenses for hemp research unless something changes to prohibit it on the federal level, says David Waddell, a TDA manager who worked with the state Legislature to fine-tune and implement Tennessee’s hemp bill.

“We basically weaved our way between federal law and state law to come up with a program broad enough for us to get some data research done to see if hemp will work as a crop in Tennessee, and to deal with the federal situation as it is,” Waddell says. “Agriculture research for some projects in corn and soybeans goes into the thousands of acres, and millions of dollars in crops. It would be hard for the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) to say, ‘oh, you can only have 1,000 acres just because it’s hemp.’”

Both Niceley and Faison say the law may need some tweaking as the industry takes shape and folks learn more about growing the plant, but cannabis may be here to stay in Tennessee—as long as a market emerges.

COVER_0924_Hemp14Photo by Clay Duda

UNFORESEEN HURDLES

Mason dove in this year, but now he’s not sure it’s going to pay out. He sunk more than $25,000 to plant hemp this season, from clearing land to purchasing seeds and getting them in the ground. He was hoping to turn a profit, but now he’d be happy just to recoup his investment.

“This is what I consider a total loss,” Mason says, looking out over a 10-acre field choked in weeds. “It’s definitely been a learning experience, and it’s going to be a learning experience for years to come. They told us up front the first year may not be profitable, but I think there needs to be a little more light out there (on the process) before we invest any more money.”

Fortunately for him, not all of Mason’s fields look so rough, although they’re not exactly to levels he’d like to see. Plantings expected to reach 6- to 8-feet tall this time of year hover in the 2- to 3-feet range, with a few ambitious sprouts coming up about waist-high. On a recent walk-through, TDA plant inspector John Rochelle noticed a die-off of about 5 to 10 percent of plants in Mason’s largest plot. The plants have already withered and browned, though he isn’t sure why.

“This is the only CRS1 (type of hemp) field I inspect, so I have nothing to compare it to,” Rochelle says.

Mason paid a premium for that CRS1 hemp seed, a more expensive variety of five types the TDA imported from Canada this year, under the assumption that it would yield more and produce a higher-quality seed and fiber than some other varieties offered. But his results are varied. One 10-acre field has been overpowered by weeds, another 20 acres is still mostly barren dirt after seed didn’t sprout, and his largest 30-acre plot is short but mostly thriving.

He tried different seeding methods to see which works best—no one really knows—but he and other farmers have said the biggest issue this year has been timing. Seeds, which have to be procured by the state and cleared through the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, were slow getting into the hands of farmers. Mason and others say they hoped to plant in late April or May, but instead many weren’t able to get seeds in the ground until late-June through mid-July, about half-way through growing season, which impacts plant size and yields.

2015 Tennessee Hemp Production by County: 

(Click for more information)

The TDA imported 38,190 pounds of hemp seed this year, all of which came from certified growers in Canada, aside from a small shipment brought in from Australia at the request of the Tennessee Hemp Industries Association, according to TDA spokeswoman Corinne Gould. Forty-seven people were approved to grow a total of 1,595 acres of hemp in Tennessee this year, although some did not plant as much as planned due to delays getting seeds. One shipment that arrived in Memphis was sent back to Canada after the carrier, FedEx, discovered the package contained hemp seed, which the company considered a narcotic, Gould says. That increased the price for three varieties of hemp seed—CFX1, CFX2, and CRS1—to about $4.40 per pound. Two others were offered at about half that price, Finola for $2.67 and Canda at $2.33 per pound. Other delays were attributed to the DEA slow-walking necessary paperwork to import the seeds.

The state passes on its expenses to the farmers, from seeds costs to $35-per-hour for random testings and inspections. Folks also have to shell out $250 for a license regardless of how much hemp they plan to grow. Mason put out about 25 pounds of seed per acre (a guestimation after consulting with hemp farmers in Canada and Kentucky), roughly $6,600 worth in all. That field that didn’t sprout was a $2,200 loss just in seed. While Mason has the largest operation in East Tennessee, the most prolific hemp growers are concentrated in the middle and west parts of the state. According to TDA figures, farmers applied to grow a total of 534 acres in Fayette County and 200 acres in Lauderdale County near Memphis, and 216 acres in Maury County near Nashville.

COVER_0924_Hemp8UT tobacco specialist Eric Walker measures a hemp field in preparation for herbicide tests. Photo by Clay Duda

A big challenge in year one of hemp production is figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Technically, by virtue and by state law, all hemp farmers in Tennessee are conducting research. They’re tracking just about everything they can, stuff like planting dates, germination rates, any issues with weeds or disease, yields, and just about anything else that factors into raising a successful crop.

“One of the biggest problems growers had this year were weeds, and since hemp is still illegal at the federal level, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) hasn’t labeled any pesticides or herbicides for use on this particular crop, so nothing is legal to use on industrial hemp,” Waddell says. “Usually if it’s planted early enough hemp drowns out any other weeds, but a lot of the farmers got planted so late, many weeds came up as fast as the hemp did.”

Some universities, including the University of Tennessee, are taking an active approach to hemp research. This week UT plans to start testing 15 types of herbicides across two, one-acre hemp fields growing in different regions of the state, one in Greeneville to the east and another in Springfield north of Nashville.

“Initially, we just planned to focus on the different varieties, plant them and get yields to see which was best, but since we planted later in the season we decided to screen for herbicides instead,” explains Eric Walker, a tobacco specialist who’s overseeing UT’s work with the cannabis plant. “We’re going to spray different herbicides across the five varieties (of hemp) to see if any herbicides out there will work. Once we find that out, then it’s up to chemical companies whether or not they want to pursue a label to allow those herbicides to be used for industrial hemp. It looks like we’re a couple of years away, minimum, before anything is released (for commercial use).”

And that’s the thing—while plenty of folks are excited about hemp’s potential as a new cash crop for Tennessee, there’s still a lot of developments needed to get it there. Even if a herbicide isn’t licensed for commercial use, the research being conducted at UT should add to the body of knowledge about cultivating hemp and help farmers down the road, says Bill Brown, dean of research in the Institute of Agriculture at UT Knoxville. The university may expand its research to other areas of the state with different climate and environmental factors next year, he says, but for AG-hands looking to make a living off this sticky, yet impotent brand of cannabis, those improvements may not come soon enough.

“I think some of the expectations a year ago was that this was just going to be a cash cow, that if you planted it you would be able to tap into this worldwide, $600 million hemp market, but that’s just not true,” Waddell says. “I think that has been a disappointment for some, that there wasn’t a ready hemp market, but that will come with time.”

 ALSO SEE: Photo Gallery: Industrial Hemp Takes Root in East Tennessee 

Clay Duda

Former Mercury staff reporter Clay Duda has covered gangs in New York, housing busts in Atlanta, and wildfires in Northern California. And lots of stuff about Knoxville.

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