Hemp farming has become viable source of income
By Kim Swindell Wood | July 5, 2019 9:48 am
By Rachel Auberger
Farmers across Tennessee are embracing hemp as a new, profitable crop, and farmers in White County are no different. According to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, 19 White County farms have been licensed to cultivate hemp crops.
One of those farms, Davis Farms, is licensed as a first-time hemp farm year. Terra Davis and her husband, Andy, who raise 3,000 acres of corn, soybean, and wheat along with Andy’s brothers, are cultivating a single acre of hemp this year.
“Just because there is a specific number of farms that have licenses to grow hemp doesn’t mean that there are that number of farms actually producing a crop,” said Will Freeman, public information officer with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. “Some people complete the application and get their license but then decide not to plant a crop.”
“I know of about 14 hemp farms, in White County, so I guess some people got licenses before making a final decision,” said Terra Davis. “That’s what we did, too, but ultimately we decided that it would be profitable.”
Freeman said this may possibly change in the future as the regulations for getting a license have changed this summer.
“Before now, there was a deadline, in February, of each year for applying for a license,” Freeman explained. “So, it is reasonable to think farmers may have been getting the license early in the year and then deciding, for whatever reason, they didn’t want to grow hemp.”
According to Freeman, applications are now available online and can be processed at any time during the year. He said this may result in only farmers who have done the research and know the specifics of cultivating a hemp crop and are ready to begin farming in obtaining the required licenses, which start at $500.
“We are always looking for ways to diversify our operation,” Davis said of the White County couple’s decision to become licensed to grow hemp. “Sometimes a particular crop price is low, so we always want to have a variety of crops to keep bringing the money in through our agriculture business.”
Hemp, which is closely related to marijuana but has no psychoactive effect, has been legal to grow, in Tennessee, since 2014 through a closely monitored government program. State records show that most licensed growers are small and are farming only a few acres like the Davises, but hemp farming on commercial-sized farms is growing in popularity, partially because the industry is appealing to struggling tobacco farmers.
“We’ve done a lot of research since this our first year growing hemp, but we plan to continue this into future year, said Terra Davis. “In fact, if this crop goes well, we will up our production to about three acres next year. We just wanted to keep it manageable this year while we learned as much as possible about this crop.”
Hemp is generally grown in one of two forms: either as a fiber in clothing, rope, or construction materials or as a flower so it can be harvested for human consumption in CBD products. It has been reported that fiber hemp is the easier of the two to grow, but, that while CBD hemp is more difficult, it is more profitable.
“Clone hemp means that all the plants are female,” explained Terra Davis. “Female plants are better for CBD oil, and the male plants are better for fiber. We didn’t want any cross-pollination, so our field is 100 percent clone.”
She said the couple plans to sell their crop to a processor in the Knoxville area this fall, and they will have to get a permit through the TDA to move the dried plants off of their farm.
“We will harvest our crop, in October,” said Terra Davis. “We will have to cut it manually and then hang it in one of the barns and let it dry for a minimum of three weeks. After that, we can cut off the leaves and flowers, and that is what we will sell to the processor.”
The TDA would urge farmers to research the specifics of growing hemp as they would any other crop. Farmers should know things such as hemp is difficult to grow because no pesticides are currently approved for use on the crop, and harvesting hemp is very labor-intensive.
“Hemp is a very manual crop,” said Davis, agreeing with TDA’s statement. “We had to physically plant each individual plant. There is currently no machine that will do it. We will have to manually cut all the plants when it comes time to harvest, too. The technology to mass plant or harvest isn’t here yet.”
Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Hatcher D.V.M. has said the TDA wants to be a resource for Tennessee farmers interested in growing industrial hemp.
“Just like with other agricultural enterprises, industrial hemp farmers will benefit from exercising due diligence and doing their research before they plant,” he said. “Producers will be much more likely to find success with this alternative crop if they identify a market and do their homework now.”
The Davises agree that education is key to hemp farming. Terra Davis recently went to Washington D.C. to attend a “Women’s Communication Boot Camp.” She chose hemp farming as the agriculture issue she wanted to address when she met with elected officials and performed media interviews.
“It’s important to educate the general public on hemp crops,” she said. “Hemp is not marijuana. It must contain under 0.3 percent THC, which means that you cannot get impaired from smoking hemp. It is also important to understand that there is nothing a farmer can do to alter that level – it is in the genetics of the plant itself.”
As for the market, Davis said CBD oil use is on the rise, so there is no shortage in demand for clone hemp plants. Additionally, she said the fiber from male plants is quite useful.
“This is a renewable resource,” said Terra Davis. “We can use it for many of the same things we do trees, but it doesn’t take nearly as long to grow. In fact, hemp has been used to make paper for a very long time. In fact, the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper.”
Davis, who is the Farm Bureau Women’s chairperson, and her husband, who is the chairman for the Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers and Ranchers, are working hard to make hemp farming an option for local farmers.
“Our hope is to make the small farm viable again,” she stated of the couple’s willingness to share their newly-found knowledge and help educate farmers and the community alike.