Hemp growers anticipate hurdles for fledgling industry

April 12, 2014 – Fields of tall hemp stalks won’t dominate Tennessee farms this summer, despite overwhelming support from state lawmakers last week to allow the plants to be grown legally.

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Both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly have passed bills decriminalizing the growth of industrial hemp, which has been defined as strains of cannabis with less than 0.3 percent THC, the high-inducing psychoactive chemical found in marijuana.

Hemp can be used to make plastics, insulation and a concrete-like material called “hempcrete.” Some strains of the plant are prized for their nutrition. And clothes and shoes made from the product are already commonplace across the country.

But federal law still stands in the way of commercial farmers who might want to grow the plant, which is considered a controlled substance in the United States.

Assuming the Tennessee House approves a minor change to the bill, and the governor signs it into law, the path would be clear for universities and agriculture departments to start research pilot programs to grow hemp.

The federal farm bill, signed by the president in February, gave the go-ahead for those types of programs.

One is already in the planning stages at Middle Tennessee State University.

“There are a lot of unknowns, but there are a lot of knowns,” said Warren Gill, director of MTSU’s School of Agribusiness and Agriscience. “Hemp’s been around for a very long time. We know it can grow in this area, and it’s fairly ideally suited in this area.”

Gill and other top MTSU administrators plan to meet in the coming weeks to brainstorm on how to launch a research program on industrial hemp.

“The potential is there, and we’re willing to look at any idea. But we have to kind of figure out things like what would it cost to look at something like that, what are the regulatory hurdles,” Gill said. “It’s almost like a simple cost-benefit analysis.”

Gill said the university is always interested in at projects that allow their students to work on something new.

“It’s also that it would be student research in something that’s breaking — a new product for farmers, since we’ve lost so much of the tobacco industry,” Gill said.

The focus of much of the brainstorming at MTSU will be where to find funding for a pilot program, Gill said.

“It takes money to do research,” Gill said. “We would need to find out who out there who is interested in sponsoring this sort of research. That becomes the next hurdle.”

Eyes are on Congress

Colleen Sauve, who started the Tennessee Hemp Industries Association, said that after the industrial hemp bill was signed into to law, the state Agriculture Department would be responsible for writing regulations.

But potential growers are also waiting to see whether Congress will pass a bill similar to the one in Tennessee, Kentucky, and nine other states that have removed barriers to hemp production. Those bills have been stalled in committees since last spring.

Aside from legal challenges, potential farmers face a host of economic challenges, from finding seeds of legal hemp strains to figuring out how to process and sell the product.

“We have so much work to do,” said Sauve, who is interested in growing the plant at her father’s 80-acre farm in Beechgrove, Tenn. “My biggest focus as the founder of the THIA is to connect the supply chain.”

She has been working closely with Clint Palmer, an MTSU student who wants to take a lead role in the pilot program at the university.

Palmer, a 30-year-old studying environmental technology and health science, said that the MTSU research could help give a head start to the industry in Tennessee in the event federal laws are loosened.

His own interest in the plant is focused on its myriad uses across industries.

“I just saw the sustainable aspect of it — no pesticides, no herbicides, remediation of soil,” he said. “Once I learned all the possibilities, I got to thinking about it, looked it up on the Internet, and thought, why the heck are we not doing this?”

By Josh Brown. Source:

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