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One Northeast Tennessee farmer applies for hemp permit

Nathan Baker • Apr 17, 2016 at 3:56 PM

Of the 64 farmers in the state hoping to legally grow industrial hemp, only one is in Northeast Tennessee.

Washington County resident Wayne Smith was disappointed with his harvest last year, mostly because of a growing season cut short by the state’s late delivery of certified seeds.

This year, he hopes to get an earlier start.

“The issue last year was seed delivery,” Smith said last week. “I’ve kept 24 1/2 pounds of the seeds I ordered last year, so I don’t have to worry about the seeds not getting here in time this year.”

After waiting for approval from the federal government for the state’s pilot program, then waiting for registered seeds to be delivered from Canada, Smith and other farmers didn’t get their seeds in the ground until June, more than six weeks after the optimal time for planting.

With the protracted season, some of Smith’s plants only grew 6-inches tall before flowering, instead of the 3 to 4 feet expected of the seed-producing cultivar.

He harvested 10 pounds of hemp seeds, for which an approved processor offered him $7, a far cry from breaking even on the $254 for the state permit and the fees for THC testing to prove he wasn’t growing marijuana.

Even with the supply problems, the miles of red tape and the apparent lack of legal processors to press the oil out of the seeds, Smith said he’s still optimistic the state test will be successful.

Randall Ledford, who grew the plant on his Unicoi County land last year, said this year he will not participate.

“I had some big dreams,” Ledford said. “My bubble sure did get busted.”

The high expense and low reward of taking part in the pilot program left him in a financial hole, so he decided to sit this year out.

“I know the benefits of hemp are priceless, but our leaders haven’t figured that out yet,” Ledford said. “I might try it again if they end up changing the laws to make it easier for guys like me, but I don’t think that’s coming any time soon.”

A bill in the state General Assembly would allow hemp processors to be licensed and would allow universities in the state with agricultural science programs to develop and distribute seeds.

Sponsored in the House by Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, and in the Senate by Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, the bills passed in the House and are awaiting approval in the Senate.

Ledford said he doesn’t believe the proposed law goes far enough to removing the barriers faced by farmers.

“There’s just too much BS,” he said. “There’s a lot of big talk, but nobody wants to buy it.”

Last year, 53 farmers applied to grow hemp, but only 46 received seeds after the permitting process and after some dropped out of the program when the state Department of Agriculture announced the seeds had been delayed.

The federal 2014 Farm Bill allowed industrial hemp to be grown for research purposes only, if a state approved the plan. Tennessee’s legislature approved a pilot growing project last year.

Related to marijuana, but with only minute amounts of THC, the psychoactive ingredient that makes it valuable as a drug, hemp was lumped in with its euphoria-producing cousin and made illegal by federal and state authorities for decades.

Proponents claim the oil squeezed from the seeds is useful in food, beauty and plastic products, and say the fibers can be used for fabrics and building materials, among others.

Email Nathan Baker at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jcpressbaker or on Facebook at facebook.com/jcpressbaker.

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