Farmers who want to grow industrial hemp in Tennessee must obtain a license from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. Otherwise, they’re growing marijuana with all the legal issues that go with it.
That was one of the messages from Anni Self, plant certification administrator for the TDA, who spoke during the Hemp Industry Outlook Session at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show in Memphis, Tenn.
Tennessee now has more than 4,000 producers who are licensed to grow industrial hemp on up to 51,000 acres. One of the biggest challenges for those farmers and for Tennessee Department of Agriculture plant inspectors and other specialists is keeping up with the changing rules for the crop.
“I’ve been with the department for 30 years, and the nursery program we also run has had two rules changes in those 30 years,” she said. “In the hemp program, which started in 2015, we’re on our fourth set of rules.
“When we began writing our regulations, we tried to make it as easy as possible for farmers to grow hemp and still comply with all the federal guidelines.”
That can be no small task because USDA’s preliminary rules on producing and marketing hemp were only released last year, and state rules on growing and transporting the crop can vary.
Across state lines
“Farmers can transport hemp across state lines, but not every state agrees with that,” she said. “We had a processor who had to spend the night in jail after he was pulled over in Texas. It took quite a few phone calls back and forth before we finally got him released.”
The TDA began developing regulations for hemp production after the 2014 farm bill allowed research programs for the crop. The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 made it legal for farmers to grow industrial hemp by exempting it from the laws governing controlled substances.
USDA’s interim final rule created three types of licenses for hemp production. It authorizes USDA to approve plans submitted by states and Indian tribes for the domestic production of hemp and for producers in states or territories or Indian tribes that choose not to administer a state or tribe-specific plan.
“Tennessee has opted to keep our state program so you can’t apply for a license through USDA — you still have to get a license through the Tennessee Department of Agriculture,” she said.
At the end of October, a Tennessee farmer will be required to visit the local USDA Farm Service Agency office to obtain a plot number for each variety and for each location where they plan to grow industrial hemp before they apply for their license.
“Following that, our state Department of Agriculture will have to submit a monthly report on those numbers to USDA,” she noted. “We also will have to collect samples 15 days prior to harvest instead of 30 days, which is what we have done in the past.
Test for THC
Tennessee and other states submitted comments on the final interim rule. “We all had issues with the 15-day rule because we feel that requirement will make it difficult for everybody,” said Self. “We’re working with a plan that would allow us to out-source some of this sampling to private laboratories.
“Also, USDA considers hemp grown without a license to be negligence while hemp grown without a license in Tennessee is considered to be marijuana, and local law enforcement gets involved.”
If the TDA had been testing for total THC in its sampling program in 2019, 20 percent of the samples in Tennessee would have exceeded the limit, and the crop would have been destroyed. “That is less than I thought it might be, but that’s not the fault of the grower, and he or she shouldn’t be punished,” she said.
To obtain a license in Tennessee, growers with less than 5 acres must pay $250; with 5 to 20 acres, $300; and over 20 acres, $350. The TDA has also changed the licensing from one grower to one license to one license for each location because some companies had as many as 95 locations.
Tennessee industrial hemp growers come in all sizes. “We have a huge operation that is growing 500 acres in southeast Tennessee, and you can grow it in a little box like this,” she said, displaying a photo of a small planter. “We don’t have any limitation in the state of Tennessee on the size of the operation.”