Tennessee’s Hemp-Heavy History

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The state of Tennessee has a rich past — and promising future — with the cash crop

Tennessee has been a hemp state for a lot longer than it hasn’t been one.

The versatile plant was already a major cash crop in the United States by the time Tennessee joined the union in 1796, and pioneer families who’d had success with it brought it across the Applachians from Virginia and the Carolinas. Producing hemp was critical at a time when ships were the primary conveyances of commerce, as its tough fibers are perfect for making sails and lines, and farmers could cash in with both government and private commercial supply contracts.

A farm report from the 1840s gushed about Tennessee’s suitability for the crop, encouraging more farmers to grow it.

“Hemp grows luxuriantly upon our River Bottom Lands, but has hitherto been neglected; although it is believed to be more profitable than any other crop that can be raised,” the report read.

For the next several decades, as farming in Tennessee expanded from subsistence to business, hemp kept pace, particularly in places like East Tennessee and parts of Middle Tennessee unsuitable for cotton. The northern two-thirds of Middle Tennessee were particularly strong hemp producers, according to Joseph Killebrew, the state’s first agriculture commissioner, who wrote a detailed agronomic survey in 1874.

Production generally declined for the next 75 years. William Randolph Hearst and other lumber and paper magnates get an unfair amount of the blame for their cynical advocacy of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. But the fact is that hemp’s primary usage — sail production — took a big hit with the arrival of steamships, and large-scale hemp farming was already on the skids by the time the law took effect. There was a slight uptick when World War II began, but only until DuPont and others were able to produce synthetic fibers that matched hemp’s durability. By 1950, virtually no one was farming hemp in Tennessee, so the passage of the Drug Enforcement Act in the 1970s, which classified hemp and all other forms of cannabis as Schedule I drugs, had little effect on the hemp industry in Tennessee — because there was so little to affect anyway.

Hemp farming lay dormant in Tennessee for the next 64 years. But in 2014, ours became one of the first states to take advantage of a provision in the federal Farm Act that allowed hemp production if states established a pilot program. The program was bolstered in large part by rural Republican support — including from state Sen. Frank Niceley, who is no one’s idea of a progressive, but who had been pushing for a hemp program even before federal authorization — and Tennessee was in the first cohort of states to give hemp a whirl.

In 2015, there were 44 licensed growers. By June 2020, there were 3,359 — a 29 percent jump from 2019 and an astounding jump of nearly 1,500 percent from 2018.

The overwhelming majority of these are small operations — most are five acres or smaller. In fact, while the state licensed nearly 16,000 acres for hemp (more than was harvested for tobacco), less than 40 percent of those acres actually produced hemp.

With the massive growth in hemp production came concerns from established farmers that inexperienced growers are getting into the game and diluting not only profitability but quality — but the state says most Tennessee hemp farmers have been farmers for more than 15 years.

The small-scale nature of Tennessee’s hemp industry betrays the fact that it isn’t being driven by industry at all. Though hemp is famously multipurpose with material applications, the boom is being driven by CBD, which is derived from the flower, whereas the fiber is from the stalk. Tennessee is also regulatorily friendly toward Delta-8-producing hemp, an increasingly popular extract that has thus far dodged the federal narcotic schedule despite psychoactive properties.

Agriculturally speaking, growing for CBD and Delta-8 is a more difficult process than simply growing for fiber, as pollination and seed-to-flower times are a bigger concern. Furthermore, all CBD-producing hemp must be grown organically by law because there are no approved pesticides for the plant. But it’s easier to be profitable on a small operation with the extracts than it is with fiber, so the juice is worth the squeeze (so to speak).

The factors that make Tennessee such fertile ground for hemp are the same as they were in 1842 (and the same as they are for any other number of cash crops): four distinct seasons with a mild winter, plentiful rainfall, rich soil and so on. But farming is a tough business, and bubbles often burst (just ask, among others, Dutch tulip farmers in 1637, still a cautionary tale almost 500 years later), hitting non-diversified farmers especially hard.

But for now, with the extracts still largely unregulated (and their benefits largely unverified), the market is wide open and the green rush is on.

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