Hemp boom lures novices: ‘You’re going to see a lot of businesses fail’

Friday, June 28, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 26
By Tom Wood

Business partners Jesse Riggins, left, and Jonathan Gunn look at the different types of hemp being produced on William Corbin’s farm.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Jesse Riggins knows firsthand the positive effects of cannabis, and that’s a major reason why he and longtime friend Jonathan Gunn became licensed hemp growers and processors.

Together they operate JJ Gen Pro (Genetics and Processing) in Springfield where they have 16 acres of crop in the ground and 50 acres total.

“We’ve been discussing hemp and medical marijuana from the first time we met, about eight years ago,” says Riggins, who has a nursing degree and worked at Vanderbilt and Baptist (now St. Thomas Midtown) in Nashville, but says he’s been involved with farming since his youth.

“I was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2014. After doing chemo and radiation, I was talked into doing medical cannabis. I went out West with some friends of mine and treated myself with medical cannabis, and I’m still here today, cancer-free.

“I’ve been working with the cannabis plant ever since. It has not bored me. I find out and learn something new every day, and I just want to spread the knowledge and hopefully help people.”

Gunn, whose family has been primarily involved in beef cattle since the early 1900s, says he got involved with hemp while studying at Western Kentucky University, from which he’ll graduate this fall. He’s worked as a hemp processor for the past three years, but this is the friends’ first year as business partners.

Hemp processors convert the hemp plants they get from farmers into crude oil. It can be used as CBD oil to make CBD-based products like CBD tinctures, creams and ointments, soap products or even edibles for humans and pets.

No matter the end product, they describe their company as a farmer-oriented business.

“Probably one of the biggest problems that we’re facing this year is that everybody thinks this is a get-rich-quick scheme, and they’re all focused on the money,” Gunn says. “And I think that’s where a lot of people are going to go wrong.

Hemp plant on William Corbin’s farm in Springfield.

“You’re going to see a lot of businesses fail, you’re going to see some succeed. I hope ours is one that succeeds. We’re farmer-focused. If we can’t help the farmer, then we’re not doing our job as a business. If they’re successful, then we are and that will just continue down the line.”

Adds Riggins: “When we started JJ Gen Pro – which mainly, like Jonathan said – is farmer-focused, so that we can give our farmers what they need to be successful because if our farmers aren’t successful, then we can’t be successful as a business.”

Both men take a cautious, wait-and-see approach to the growth of Tennessee’s hemp industry. They work with 10 farmers and have contracted buyers for the wholesale CBD distillate they process.

“Our focus is making sure the base product is the best that it can be, so that when those products are made from the bulk distillate, we know we’ve given it our all and we hope the end’s producers give it their all to put a premium product on the shelf,” Riggins says.

That’s the right reason to get into the hemp industry, adds Gunn, who thinks some people are getting involved just because it’s the state’s hot cash crop.

“A lot of people are going to make a lot of money, don’t get me wrong,” Gunn continues. “But the problem is that somebody who has never grown even a vegetable in their life, a crop in their life, they think that just because they have 5 acres behind their house, they can go plant an acre and they can make $100,000 an acre. That’s not going to happen.

“I mean it could – I’m not going to tell you that it won’t – but somebody who has no experience growing anything, they think they can just plant it, put it in the ground and let it grow, and it’s going to make them a bunch of money … that’s not the case.”

Adds Riggins: “It requires a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”

Jeff Smith, director of Robertson County’s Agricultural Extension office, sees both sides of the argument. He says industry growth is good, but people need to go in with open eyes.

“A lot of people are pretty excited about it; I’m not sure where it’s all heading,” Smith says. “We’ve got some farmers with experience and some brand-new, never farmed any. It’s a wide variation of people that are getting into the business, so there’s a lot of folks interested.”