NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Industry estimates project hemp revenue to more than double by 2022 to $2.6 billion dollars — and that has people wanting to cash in on the cash crop.
Farmer Kyle Owen has almost two decades of experience growing tobacco.
“I can grow 500 acres of tobacco and feel more confident in myself than I can growing one acre of this hemp because it’s just new to me,” Owen said. “But we have to take the risk. We have to learn.”
That risk now covers 20 acres of his Smith County farm.
“It’s exciting. It’s something new,” Owen said.
It’s uncharted territory that Owen and a growing number of former tobacco farmers in Tennessee are exploring.
They said they hope the switch will replace tobacco’s declining production and profits in recent years.
“As far as a major cash crop — that’s lower acreage, higher dollar volume per acre — hemp is the only thing we can foresee right now to replace tobacco,” Owen explained.
Owen said the farming techniques and equipment are similar but with profits in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Tennessee’s northern neighbor, Kentucky, is hoping to also cash in on hemp. Kentucky’s Agriculture Commissioner is even projecting the state will become the epicenter of hemp production and processing.
Among the new processing plants is Vertical Wellness in Cadiz.
The facility’s new multi-million dollar operation takes hemp grown in the area and refines and distills it to prepare it for product development.
“Our goal is to have a wide range of products on the market,” said Bo Johnson, Vertical’s director of manufacturing.
That push for growth is coming from even Kentucky’s own senior U.S. Senator and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as well as the State’s Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.
“It’s my vision that we can make Kentucky the epicenter of hemp production and processing in the United States,” Quarles said in a statement.
“If we can help the farmers make the best crop, and they bring that to us, and we process it — that’s going to be good for our economic development as well,” said Eric Smith, director of hemp operations at Vertical.
But the great gains come with great risk.
“Year No. 1 has been sort of a struggle,” Owen said.
Hemp crop insurance is currently not offered to farmers in either state.
“You can’t throw it out there and walk away from it and expect to pick up $100,000 off the ground in six months,” Owen said. “That’s going to take a lot of management, a lot of time, and a lot of know-how.”
It’s a lot of work, Chris Hicks from the University of Tennessee Extension Center said, which he lays out when advising farmers.
“Most of them are hearing the astronomical numbers,” Hicks explained.
Hick’s advice for success? Know what you want to do with the crop and who you’re going to sell it to before you grow it.