By ZACH HARMUTH
Driving out in the county about 10 miles south of Arrington, you’ll pass a farm that looks like any other.
There are sunflowers at one edge along the road and a row of shade trees set back at the property line. This is rural Tennessee at its most beautiful and most traditional.
This is also the place where roughly half a million Cannabis plants grow, with full knowledge of the authorities.
It is a hemp farm, one of four in Williamson County, run by Clint Palmer and Paige Thompson.
In 2015 Tennessee legalized with limits commercial hemp farming bill Sec. 7606, “Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research,” contained in the 2014 Federal Farm Bill. For the first time since the Marijuana Acts of 1937, the prohibition on cultivating cannabis loosened just a bit, as the bill let some pilot research programs partner with individual farmers to explore the market viability of a hemp crop
The first year about 50 farms in Tennessee applied for permits, but that number rose to 64 in 2016.
Palmer and Thompson’s farm is near the southern limits of Williamson County, set in the green, rolling hills at 6069 Nashville Highway south of College Grove. Palmer, 31 and a graduate agricultural student at Middle Tennessee State University, and Thompson, 28 and a Belmont grad, have tended their farm for going on two years now and they have big plans for the future and for hemp farming.
This week they are getting ready for the challenges of their second-ever harvest. Though only farming on one-acre now, Palmer and Thompson have room to grow. The couple plans to eventually plant all 65 arable acres that Thompson’s family owns in the area. Part of their plan for this fall harvest, as a way to raise awareness and educate people about the value of hemp as a crop, they ran a hemp maze at the end of the summer.
Meanwhile, the real maze for Palmer and Thompson is the one that takes hemp farming from its meager beginnings last year to a legitimate cash crop in Tennessee.
To that end they both sit on the board of Tennessee Hemp Industries Association, which is trying to make a map through the maze anyone can follow.
The prohibition-loosening 2014 law let people like Palmer get involved through MTSU to receive a Tennessee Department of Agriculture permit. The law focused on creating a regulatory structure in which hemp could be farmed but heavily monitored.
The rules go like this:
For background, the plant genus Cannabis has three species in it that are all colloquial called hemp, pot, weed, marijuana and on and on. Naturally, all Cannabis species produce tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychotropic chemical that produces intoxicating effects when ingested. In nature, cannabis contains about 3 to 4 percent THC. In Colorado, the cannabis sold recreationally has an average level of 18.7 percent and sometimes as high as 30 percent.
The 2014 legalized the commercial cultivation of Cannabis strains that contain 0.3 percent THC or less for use as hemp. The analogy of non-alcoholic beer applies, with hemp being something like O’Doul’s. But then imagine that instead of drinking the non-alcoholic beer people used it to produce an array of things from clothing to health food products.
A farmer must apply for a permit from the TDA, and provide information about how much acreage they have and exact GPS coordinates of their farm. The GPS information is extremely important, and can be the difference between being left alone or getting raided by local authorities who believe they uncovered an illegal pot farm.
Palmer knows of one less-than fastidious farmer who gave incorrect coordinates and was raided by local law enforcement. Things were cleared up, legally, but his entire crop was eradicated.
After a farmer secures a permit, procures the seeds — from as far away as Italy or Australia, for different qualities and attributes — and starts actually doing the things a farmer does, then the inspections begin.
“Every person that has a permit from the state, the state comes out and takes samples and those samples are then analyzed and you either get a pass or fail,” said Thompson. “If you fail, by having a THC level above .3 they come and destroy your whole crop. That is how it is regulated.”
There is a bit of common sense applied, because after all nature is unpredictable.
“Let’s say a farmer tested at 0.4 they are not going to throw that farmer in jail because environmental conditions affect THC levels,” Palmer said.
But if they test at 3 percent, that is clearly not an accident, to be growing plants with THC at 10 times the legal limit.
So, after all the hoops are jumped through, and the tests passed, and the plants are growing, within 70 to 140 days comes the harvest.
The 2014 law covered things up to that point, but did precious little to foster a market.
Hemp has many uses, most of them decidedly not hippy-dippy stoner myths, from textiles to essential oils. Because it grows faster than almost any other commercial crop, and because its fibers are especially strong, it could theoretically compete with cotton as a textile crop. There is hempcrete, a mixture of hemp and lime that is pressed into strong and durable blocks that can be used for insulation and construction, as a greener and potentially cheaper alternative to wood. Nutritionally, hemp oils Omega oil profile provides a more complete supplement of essential oils than fish oil supplements. The list goes on.
o get from crop to cash, however, takes processing facilities for the harvested hemp. Without access to processing centers, hemp farming will not succeed.
“There was no legal framework for processors in the first bill and the first year,” said Palmer. “People wanted to come to the table but they had no protection.”
This year is a little better. Realizing the problem — a processor could be setting himself up to get raided and arrested for illegal possession in the worst case — lawmakers drafted House Bill 2032, signed into law this past May, which broadened the language of the 2014 bill to include processing and to hopefully support creating a market.
“We have people coming to the table, now,” said Palmer. “There is still not a commercially available processing facility in the state. But there are people working very, very hard to set up a business just for processing.”
The problem is circular. A big commercial processor company needs to know there will be enough crops coming their way to make financial sense to set up. Conversely, farmers won’t flock to plant, or plant more, hemp until they know they have access to a big enough processor to monetize it.
The U.S. market for hemp products in 2013 was $581 million. The plants, which grow up to 15 feet high, produce per acre about 700 pounds of grain and 5,300 pounds of fibers before processing. Based on those numbers and the current market, Hemp Industries of America estimates the value of an acre of crops at between $12,000 and $21,000. The problem prospective Tennessee hemp farmers face is getting from here, to there.
The thing to realize about Palmer and Thompson is that, while they may be farming, they are much, much more than farmers. They are trailblazers, like the rest of their colleagues in the TNHIA, self-tasked with growing a farm-to-consumer industry from scratch. And all the while under intense governmental and legal scrutiny and regulation. Given the obstacles, the hemp industry’s budding progress in the past two years in the Volunteer stare, while not breathtaking at a glance, is really monumental.
Kentucky legalized the hemp industry 15 years ago. The state has a system set up, somewhat similar in regulation to Tennessee, and several well-established commercial processors.
“We are only about a year behind them at this point,” Palmer said.
All of Thompson and Palmer’s efforts, and those of the TNHIA, focus finely on the path to that point in the future. The worry is that people- farmers, lawmakers, investors- will mistake difficultly for impracticality.
“The infrastructure just isn’t there yet,” Thompson said. “The financial and the processing infrastructure is just not there yet with the crop, which is not to say that we are not going to get there or even get there real fast, but a lot of people are approaching it as something they can plant today and make money off of tomorrow, and that is simply not the case. We are in a process of research and development.”
Because of that process, the couple spend much of their time away from the farm, either at MTSU or in Nashville meeting with legislators and lobbyists and state employees, or at monthly meetings of the HIA.
Palmer has been working on the state level. He just got back from a trip to Colorado with Rep. Jeremy Faison (TN- District 11) and several others, to meet with legislators there to find some solutions for Tennessee. To get a grasp of the industry out there at large.
“We do what we can to produce an end product, and right now our end products are industrial hemp products,” said Thompson. “That is what we are trying to propel. And it is about sustainable farming. It is about bringing jobs into an agricultural area where they have diminished in recent years. And it is also about revitalizing the rural economy.”