Hemp could bring pot of gold to state’s farmers

Tennessee among top US producers as CBD oil finds new markets

Friday, November 16, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 46
By Linda Bryant

After decades of prohibition, stigma and an overall image problem, at least 35 states nationwide – including Tennessee – now allow some form of hemp cultivation. But it’s not the kind of hemp that gets people stoned.

Yes, there’s a difference between the kind of hemp grown in Tennessee for industrial uses and the marijuana hemp variety that gets you high. But because controversy and illegality has surrounded hemp and marijuana for so long, neither variety was allowed to be grown in the U.S. until recently.

Tennessee changed its laws concerning growing industrial hemp in 2015, and since that time the industry in Tennessee has been steadily rising with 2018 seen as a breakout year.

Those close to the budding industry in Tennessee say there’s a groundswell of excitement sweeping the state about the once-maligned plant and are expecting 2019 to be an explosive year for growth.

Consider the backdrop:

Hundreds of farmers are learning to grow, harvest and sell the plants.

Entrepreneurs are now processing industrial hemp and many are converting it into over-the-counter products such as CBD oil, creams and salves, soaps and edibles such as lollipops, chocolate bars and honey, pet products, and smokable buds of legal hemp.

On an academic level, researchers are busy at state universities, including the University of Tennessee, Tennessee State University and Middle Tennessee State University, researching hemp for everything from its medicinal effects to its economic impact.

And the Tennessee Department of Agriculture is heavily involved in signing up and helping to educate and train hemp farmers and processors via its Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program.

“Last year we had 79 hemp growers in Tennessee, this year we have 226, and I’m expecting over 400 next year,” says Katy Kilbourne, plant pathologist for the state, who works with state hemp farmers. “Tennessee is among the Top 10 hemp producers in the country, and that’s really happened because we have taken off in the past year.”

The global market for hemp consists of more than 25,000 products, including: fabrics, textiles and yarns, spun fibers, carpeting, auto parts, plastic alternatives, fuel, paper, home furnishings and construction materials, the National Hemp Association reports.

While there’s plenty of excitement to go around about the burgeoning industry, some advise caution, mostly because the industry is in its infancy. They say regulations are either lacking, confusing or inconsistent depending on federal and state laws.

“I applaud taking CBD off the list of controlled substances, but in my opinion there’s likely not enough regulation,” says Bob Moore, a chemistry professor at the University of Tennessee who specializes in cannabinoid receptor research.

“The floodgates are opening, and I think we must be cautious even though there’s obvious excitement. The stability of the products has not been thoroughly investigated. The science is there, but the bottom line is the state probably needs to get involved with regulations, especially as the industry grows.”

Eric Walker, assistant professor of tobacco and specialty crops at the University of Tennessee and a specialist in hemp growing who’s overseeing the state’s production, says industrial hemp could be a major boom crop in Tennessee.

Although he’s devoted to making that happen, he, too, issues a warning and says growing the industry in Tennessee is not without hurdles.

“The challenge is in finding, identifying and verifying truths in this rapidly developing and changing industry that is heavily and widely promoted on so many levels,” Walker acknowledges. “There is so much information available and being circulated with confidence. It is being accepted and furthered as truth, but much of it has not been verified.

“It’s a challenge trying to persuade people to be objective, realistic and rational [about the possibilities of hemp production and use],” he adds. “Some people are very passionate, emotional and optimistic about hemp – and this is good – but it can be self-detrimental when the passion, emotion, optimism and desire impair evaluation and judgement of factors associated with production, including risks, costs, profits and the volatile nature of a developing industry.”

Music City Hemp owner David Duncan, right, talks to customer Chris Harris, who says he is purchasing some CBD products for his mother and girlfriend.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Joe Fox, managing partner/co-founder of Blühen Botanicals, a new Knoxville-based hemp processing and research company, says the industry will find its way as it grows.

“I’ve never seen an industry move as fast as this one is moving now,” Fox adds. “The only thing I can think of that comes close in comparison is the dot.com era, but this is [trend of economic growth] more stable and there are more mutual assets. I definitely believe we will continue to see more growth and success in the hemp industry.”

Blühen Botanicals operates a 2,000-square-foot research and development facility at 1329 Chilhowee Ave., and is poised to open an 18,000-square-foot processing plant at 2209 North Central Street in Knoxville at the site of a former Habitat for Humanity thrift store.

The company’s goal is to become one of the largest – if not the largest – industrial hemp processing and extraction facilities in the Southeast.

Fox stresses that the industry is emerging with standards and controls, adding Blühen Botanicals is working closely with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, which tests plants to confirm the levels of THC. The company performs additional tests, and a third-party lab adds a third layer of testing.

Their research and development facility will initially operate as a processor of hemp grown by local farmers and provide seeds, seedlings and clones to farmers. Blühen plans to create wholesale CBD oil and other applications, which will then be sold to industry retailers and distributors.

Hemp, CBD oil and retail

Industrial hemp and marijuana are both varieties of the cannabis sativa plant. Although they’re part of the same species, the two are significantly different.

Hemp contains much lower levels of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly referred to as THC, than marijuana and higher levels of the non-psychoactive compound cannabidiol, known as CBD.

CBD will not get you stoned, and that’s basically why laws have loosened concerning its production and use.

At this point in Tennessee anything to do with CBD, whether it’s on the farming side, the business side or the consumer side, is where most of the buzz and enthusiasm lies.

The fact that CBD is non-psychoactive makes it an appealing option for patients looking for relief from a host of conditions and maladies: inflammation, pain, fibromyalgia, anxiety, asthma. MS, psychosis, seizures, spasms, and other conditions without disconcerting feelings of lethargy or dysphoria.

It also makes it appealing to entrepreneurs who want to sell CBD-based products that the public is increasingly asking for.

David Duncan, who opened Music City Hemp Store – Nashville’s first retail hemp store – in April 2018, decided to open a storefront because he felt it would “truly help a lot of people in Nashville, in fact I knew it would.” (Several other retail hemp stores have since opened in 2018.)

Duncan, an award-winning blues guitarist and songwriter who has had songs recorded by stars including Lorrie Morgan and Buddy Jewell, tends his store in Germantown at 708 4th Ave N. six days a week.

On a cool, clear Saturday afternoon, a steady stream of customers make their way into Duncan’s store, each asking questions about what kind of product might help with specific ailments from cancer to fibromyalgia.

Duncan spends time with every customer, explaining each product in detail. He suggests proper dosages to try first, talks about effects of the products and offers choices of products to each customer. All of the product lines at Music City Hemp originate from Tennessee residents.

Duncan is carrying merchandise from hemp farms in Clarksville and Nashville’s Bells Bend, and from an herbalist who makes tinctures and creams in Dunlap, about 30 miles north of Chattanooga.

Duncan says it’s typical for children of people in the 50s, 60s and older to visit the store for searching for a CBD product that will help a parent. His description proves true as three customers buy CBD-based products for a parent in the span of 30 minutes.

On Nov. 10, Duncan has worked with 16 customers by 3 p.m. and all but one has made a purchase.

Brian Langlinais stops in to buy a CBD pain relief cream for his wife.

“Everyone I know is using it (CBD) in one way or another,” Langlinais says, adding that when his wife first used CBD pain cream for a broken toe “the pain disappeared.”

The oils, tinctures, edibles and non-psychoactive smokable hemp buds Duncan offers for sale at his shop are not cheap. For example, a typical bottle of CBD oil is $50 to $80 and a pain relief salve or cream is about $50.

Brenda Rodriguez makes the 35-mile drive from her home in Lebanon to Music City Hemp Store to pick up CBD oil for her son David whenever she needs to. David, 26, is severely epileptic and has autism, she explains. His seizures were so frequent and dangerous he had a portion of his brain removed in order to reduce them, Rodriguez explains.

“As soon as we gave him the CBD oil, he started to get better,” she adds. “His prescription medication has been lowered by half. He was having about 25 seizures a day, and now he’s down to eight or so. I am really happy.

“Now he is laughing and smiling,” Rodriguez continues. “We can go to places we couldn’t go to before. David had gotten so depressed because the seizures and frustrations had made him an outsider. He is doing great now. He’s also lost weight and gone from 270 to 200 pounds.

Rodriguez, who has her own cleaning business, says she spends about $400 a month on CBD oil.

“I guess it sounds like a lot, but I do what I have to do for my kid,” she says, adding that David’s physician supports her choice to give David CBD.

‘The perception is changing’

Dwayne Madden opened Hemp House at 512 Tremont in Chattanooga in October 2017, and he is preparing to expand to Knoxville and expecting to open more stores in Chattanooga.

He wasn’t sure what to expect because of the history of hemp being associated with marijuana. But he says he’s been surprised – in a good way – by the community’s reception.

“We have been accepted with open arms here in Chattanooga,’’ Madden says. “We haven’t had any issues on the legal side. We actually have police officers who come in and shop with us. I’ve been blown away by any expectation I might have had. It’s been crazy. We have blown all our numbers out of the water in our first year.

“I really believe the perception [of hemp and non-psychoactive cannabis] is changing,” Madden adds. “The time has come for this. When you think about it, people have been given pills their whole lives and many have long-term damage from them.

“Anything that can reduce that kind of dependence that’s safe should be OK.”

Madden did hit a glitch in Knoxville when he was looking for a retail space and was rejected by a landlord because he didn’t like the idea of a hemp business.

“When we were looking for our new location in Knoxville and we found a prime spot, and we got turned down by the actual building owners,” Madden says. “They didn’t want us in their building. But that’s OK, we just turned around and bought a building.

Hemp House Knoxville will be located at 1645 Downtown West Blvd. and open in early 2019.

Like Duncan in Nashville, Madden carries products sourced in Tennessee.

“We work directly with all of our farmers,” he says, adding that he works closely with farmers from Clarksville and Maryville.

“It’s very cool and exciting to see this opportunity opening up for farmers close to home,” he adds.

Madden concurs with Duncan when it comes to the average age of his clientele. “I thought it would be people closer to my age demographic, which is 35, but it’s been the opposite of that and come a lot from customers 50 and up,” he points out.

“A lot of our business is focused around our elderly community.”

First-time growers

Tammy and Arnaldo Rodriguez are farmers and owners of MosHemp Cultivators in Mosheim, about 60 miles east of Knoxville. Last year Arnaldo told Tammy he wanted to research the possibilities of going into business as hemp farmers.

Tammy was initially resistant she associated industrial hemp with drugs.

“We have two biological children and three adopted children. Two of the adopted children have fetal alcohol syndrome, so that means their problems stem from drugs and alcohol,” Rodriguez explains. “I couldn’t hear what my husband was saying; I literally thought he was talking about pot.”

Rodriquez started researching industrial hemp and eventually changed her mind.

“I jumped in 100 percent,” she says. “My husband – and all the research I did – helped tear down the walls I had up.”

The couple formed their hemp company last December and embarked on a whirlwind of learning, experimentation, traveling, planting, creating new products and getting the entire family involved in farming duties.

“We heard about it in November and by December we had our LLC,” Rodriquez recounts. “We got moving fast and educated ourselves. We went to Denver twice [Colorado is a center for hemp production, knowledge and expertise]. It was hours and weeks of research and getting our ducks in a row before we were planting plants.

“It was a seven-month process before we got our plants in the ground.”

Tammy and Arnaldo harvested 598 out of 700 plants so far this year and have launched their own retail line of products, including hemp-rich items such as lip balm, bath salts, skin care lotions and CBD vape.

For CBD oil they are partnering with a Nashville-based mobile processor, MariJ Pharmaceuticals. Crude, or concentrated oil, has a higher concentration of the cannabinoid and requires a permit to be able to process.

“Everything we do with our plants is done by hand, and all the watering is done by our children,” Rodriguez says. “To increase the amount of buds you grow you have to be very hands on with your plants. Some people are doing it like a tobacco farmer would do with tobacco, but that’s not feasible if you don’t have equipment.”

The Rodriguez children are benefitting from taking CBD products, Rodriguez says. One daughter with fetal alcohol syndrome stutters, especially when she’s mad or flustered, but after starting her on a CBD tincture, the stuttering greatly improved.

“We saw an immediate change in her stuttering,” Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez adds that her 19-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum, is experiencing positive results using CBD products for anxiety.

One of the Rodriguez children was razzed by another child at a home-schooling event for being a “pot grower,” but was able to handle it because she was knowledable enough about hemp to not take being ribbed about it personally.

“There’s is still some stigma attached to hemp and marijuana,” Rodriguez says. “Here’s way I’d tell a person close-minded [to industrial hemp]. I’d tell them to would sit at a computer for an hour and do some research. They’d be blown away.”