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Hemp harvest leaves farmers disappointed

Nathan Baker • Updated Sep 20, 2015 at 11:15 AM

Local growers started with high hopes this year, but an underwhelming hemp crop — legal for the first time in 70 years — has left them reconsidering their involvement in the state’s pilot project.

Legal red tape delayed delivery of seeds and restricted what they can do with the seeds they harvested this year, leaving Wayne Smith and Randall Ledford feeling like they financed Tennessee’s industrial hemp experiment.

Smith, who, after finally receiving the seeds he ordered from the state in June, planted three pounds on a patch of his Eastern Star area land.

He harvested 10 pounds of seeds this month, but said he likely would have had a much better yield had he received the seeds in April, when crops are normally planted.

After paying $254 for the permit to grow from the state, Smith said a buyer he contacted offered 70 cents per pound for his raw seeds, a total of $7.

“I’m still pretty floored,” he said. “I’m going to use the harvested seed to make oil and maybe sell it as a novelty item.”

Ledford planted all 27.5 pounds of seeds he ordered from the state on his tucked away Unicoi County land. He harvested 42 pounds and said he believes one of his plants, at 7.5 feet tall, was the tallest in the state.

“Everybody’s so depressed,” Ledford said. “Unless something drastic happens, there’s no way I’ll do it again next year. There are just too many regulations, too much B-S.”

For one, none of the seeds he grew can leave his property in a form which could allow them to be cultivated to grow another plant, unless he takes the 70-cent offer. Ledford said he spoke with a few potential buyers, but could face federal drug trafficking charges if he transports the seeds out of the state.

He also had to pay for the state’s two inspections of his plants, at $35 per hour, including travel time, and $175 for each lab test for THC content to ensure he wasn’t growing illegal marijuana.

Corinne Gould, Director of Communications for the Department of Agriculture, said the state is still collecting data and feedback from the pilot program farmers. A report should be generated in November.

“Anecdotally, like the other crops in Tennessee, growers have had varying degrees of success,” she said. “We’ve seen variation according to location, some areas have been dry, some wet, and we’ve also seen variation among individual producers.”

When ordering seeds next year, Gould said the state might consider expanding the variety of plants available. This year, the state ordered one variety of seeds that produce plants better suited for seed production. Next year, different seed plants or plants that can be harvested for fibers could be available, she said.

The federal 2014 Farm Bill allowed industrial hemp to be grown for research purposes only, if a state approved the plant. 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.

Forty-six farmers applied to receive seeds through the state this year for the pilot project, which was designed to determine the plant’s viability as a cash crop.

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

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