Tennessee trials begin with a vision for the future

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Want to see an industry sprout before your very eyes? Look to the Volunteer State. With 1,600 acres of hemp being planted at 48 farms this year, the main actors in the Tennessee hemp industries seem to have left no stones unturned.

“Everybody wants to get in on this sexy hemp thing, especially with all the buzz around CBD,” said Duane Phillippi, Agriculture Manager at Tennessee Hemp Farm (THF), a 15-farmer hemp cooperative. “But we’re developing a fully integrated supply chain to demonstrate a working industry,” Phillippi said, with a range of research planned to evaluate varieties and growing conditions and to fully explore the crop’s broad potential in the consumer marketplace.

CBD, or cannabidiol, is the non-psychoactive component of the plant that possesses a wide range of therapeutic benefits, and has gotten a lot of hype in the mainstream media. Extracted from cannabis flowers, its popularity and sales are on a steep climb in the USA, but it can’t be produced here and mostly is imported from Europe.

Field to factory to market

By nailing down contracts with manufacturers who’ll buy Tennessee’s first hemp crop of the 21st century, THF is demonstrating to farmers the viability of the industry from field to factory to market.

“For example, the 60,000 acres of hemp being grown in Canada can’t keep up with demand in the seed market,” said Phillippi, whose co-op has lined up processors in Tennessee to crush their hempseed harvest, where at least part of the Kentucky-grown product is destined for processing and manufacturing.

“It’s knowing the price points, and what their crops are going to get for the farmers, then connecting it all down to the consumer that are critical,” he noted.

Phillippi, a Canadian who brings more than 15 years experience to the hemp industries, said getting Tennessee farmers directly together with experienced Canadian hemp farmers was important to building out the first group of Tennessee hemp growers. “It just provides a comfort factor; they could get all of their questions answered by guys who speak their same language,” Phillippi added.

TNHIA milestone

Getting hemp in Tennessee soil this spring for the first time since the mid 20th century is a key milestone for those who’ve been promoting it as a state crop for the last several years, led by the Tennessee Hemp Industries Association (TNHIA), the state chapter of the national HIA.

“I’d venture to say we have one of the best relationships with our state agriculture department of any state,” said Adam Fink, Director of the TNHIA, whose representatives took up twice monthly meetings with Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) officials early in the process of bringing hemp to the state.

A TNHIA lobbying effort helped result in passage of HB 2445, which basically paved the way for this year’s trials by decoupling industrial hemp from marijuana in state statutes. That measure, which drew bi-partisan support in the Tennessee Legislature, was signed into law in May 2014.

For this year’s trial growing season, TNHIA supported state agriculture officials in applying for federal Drug Enforcement Agency approval to import seeds. DEA clearance is needed because industrial hemp is still illegal at the federal level based on antiquated laws that wrongly lump “cannabis sativa,” the industrial hemp strain, with its psycho-active cousin, marijuana.

“It took an incredible effort from all of us to lobby — all the way up to the governor — to make sure we’d get these seeds. It’s as simple as that,” said Tennessee Hemp Farm’s Phillippi, who’s working closely with THIA and the TDA.

In all, 5 strains of certified Canadian seed will be tested this year.

The Kentucky precedent

“Thankfully, we had the precedent in Kentucky,” Fink said, where Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is actively pushing industrial hemp, and with the state movement also backed in the U.S. Congress by GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell. “So Kentucky put together the political power to push the hemp agenda,” Fink noted, which gave heft to TNHIA’s efforts in Tennessee.

TNHIA also reached out to crop improvement associations and state agricultural extension agents to help set the agenda for hemp in Tennessee, and has built relationships with two universities, Middle Tennessee State and UT/Knoxville, who’ll take up research projects.

For the future, Phillippi sees Tennessee’s hemp industries organised around “new-age” co-ops in which farmer members are also shareholders in processing facilities. “As a partner in the value chain the farmers commit to keep those processors running 365 days a year, and have a vested interest in supplying quality product,” he said. The farmers will plant enough to keep production flowing and a few more acres to help other cooperative members who might need it, Phillippi added.

“Building a co-op is a long road, and we’re only the instigators. Farmers have to take possession of it, have a stake in it, and run it,” Phillippi added.

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