It stands to become the next cash crop. Tennessee’s hemp surge is in full swing, with nearly 3,000 licensed growers in the state. Last year, there were just 226.

“I would say that Tennessee is top five in the country for the most amount of licensed hemp growers,” said Will Freeman of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. “Our first year having this hemp program was in 2015, as a pilot research program. We issued 49 grower licenses during that year, and each year since it’s grown.”

The department saw interest in the program soar once the 2018 Federal Farm Bill became law. It removed hemp from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of controlled substances. “That allowed us to change our program from a pilot research program into a normal crop program like you’d see with other crops,” Freeman added.

Hemp is not exactly a new phenomenon in Tennessee. Agriculture Department records show 600 tons of the plant produced statewide in 1850. By 1874, counties south of Nashville were part of a 19th-century hemp surge, with soil rich in nutrients favorable to growth. Hemp was used for making rope and bags for cotton. But as time marched forward, production declined as less-expensive synthetic fibers emerged.

A significant part of hemp’s resurgence is cannabidiol or CBD. Some studies have shown the compound has therapeutic benefits. That’s getting a lot of attention at Middle Tennessee State University, where Dr. Elliot Altman and a team of graduate students are digging deeper into hemp – from biology to chemistry. “Everyone would love to have pure CBD. No THC. So, we are trying to develop a high CBD strain that will devoid THC because we knocked it out using molecular biology and generated a stable plant line,” he says. “You have a million of biological activities that you can look at ranging from anti-bacterial, anti-cancer, anti-fungal, anti-viral.”

Meanwhile, in the fields, fledgling businesses are taking root. “This is our second year growing hemp, totally different than last year,” says Smith County farmer Kyle Owen. “Last year, we produced fiber hemp and this year we are solely CBD hemp.” Owen saw hemp as a resource to replace less fruitful crops. “It came about… we were just looking for another resource to kind of replace tobacco. The tobacco markets have kind of faded over the last several years. And looking for something to kind of replace that cash crop with,” he added.

News 2 has spent weeks investigating Tennessee’s Hemp Surge. Linda Ong has special reports all day Thursday in every newscast.

Stories featured include: 

Regulating Tennessee’s growing hemp industry
MTSU students researching hemp discover promising compound
Industry expects hemp revenue to hit $2.6B by 2020