Industrial hemp could be grown here this year

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

By Karen Hall


Will you live to see Marshall County farmers making money growing fields of industrial hemp?

The answer may depend on how long you live!

This is the first year the law allows Tennessee farmers to grow hemp, and many people called UT Extension Agent Rick Skillington asking about it, but he had no answers for them.

"I've never dealt with a situation where I couldn't answer a producer's question," exclaimed Skillington, at the beginning of a meeting for farmers Monday night at Russell's Catering.

He went on to say that 21 years ago when he first came here as extension agent, people who moved to Marshall County to work at Saturn were asking him what they could raise on their five- to 15-acre farms that would bring in money equal to what they were making at the factory.

Skillington's answer then was, "How do you feel about growing marijuana?" because it was the only crop which could bring in that much money.

"Little did I realize I would be having a marijuana meeting," he said.

Of course, it isn't marijuana that farmers would be growing -- it is industrial hemp, which can be used for fiber, food and oil. It's widely grown in Canada and some European countries and used to be grown in the United States. There was even a "Hemp for Victory" campaign to encourage farmers to grow it during World War II.

You can't tell marijuana and hemp apart just by looking at them. The difference can only be determined by chemical analysis of the amount of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) in the plants. The THC is the psychoactive part of marijuana, in other words, the part that gets you high. By law, industrial hemp must contain less than 0.3 percent THC, while illegal marijuana contains from 3 to 20 percent THC.

UT expert Eric Walker was at the meeting to explain this and much more to about 60 people.

It may not be possible to grow hemp here this year, he said.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture applied to the Drug Enforcement Administration in November for permission to import hemp seed from Canada, and, so far, permission has not been granted.

If farmers want to grow hemp, getting the seed is just the beginning. They also have to apply by April 1; register with TDA; pay a licensing fee of $250, plus $2 for each acre of hemp grown; and pay for one or more tests for THC at a probable cost of $175 each time, plus $35 per hour for the inspector's time.

If the THC content is found to be too high, the field of industrial hemp will have to be destroyed.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation also has to be kept informed of the locations where industrial hemp is being grown, so its agents don't mistake it for someone's illegal marijuana patch.

"Approach it like a hobby," advised Walker.

"Don't believe everything you read," he added.

"You can't get into growing it for less than $1,000, not counting equipment or harvest costs, and you may not see a dime back," Walker concluded.

Even if a farmer complies with all the requirements, passes all the tests and succeeds in growing and harvesting a field of industrial hemp, the crop still has to be processed. There's no place to get this done in Tennessee, and it's illegal to move unprocessed hemp across state lines.

"It's still marijuana under federal law," explained Jimmy Hopper of the TDA, who was the next speaker.

"It's good to see this much interest in a new crop," he said.

"It's been a challenge," Hopper added.

"We will do all we can to get seed in to supply to individuals who want to grow it," he said.

So far, Hopper said, they have had 19 applications, mostly from farmers in West Tennessee, who may be forming a cooperative.

It remains to be seen how industrial hemp would fare in Tennessee -- how it would react to the climate and to weed and insect pressure, what birds and animals would be attracted to feed on it and what equipment would be needed to harvest it.

"Down the road it may be a viable crop for the state of Tennessee," said Skillington as he brought the meeting to a close after two hours, though many farmers stayed on to ask more questions.