It was almost 20 years ago that Steve Smith, director of operations, SBX Farms, and Boyd Vancil, president, SBX Farms, in a separate project, planted their first kenaf crop on the research grounds of Agricenter International. In 2018, under the SBX Farms brand, they planted their first industrial hemp crop.
“Last year was our first effort to produce industrial hemp,” says Smith. “We have worked on a number of other ag-related projects including using sugars from sweet sorghum for biofuels, chemical applications, and food and fiber products, but we have now centered our attention on industrial hemp and are evaluating 10 varieties for their ability to thrive in the hot and humid Mid-South climate.”
Smith and the SBX team have seen a number of stresses and diseases in their current industrial hemp crop and have sent samples off for testing to verify the exact causes. “We’re conducting fertility and stress trials, and we picked a good year to do it with the extremely wet spring and the long period of hot and humid weather we’ve had.”
In one trial, they are growing the crop on 38-inch rows, but they believe it can be grown on narrow rows as well. “Genetics seems to have caused a lot of the problems with the crop this year, but that’s why we’re evaluating so many different varieties,” says Smith.
“As far as I know, any herbicides or pesticides used on industrial hemps crops are done off-label, so we’re reduced back to growing it with organically-registered products, and we do a good deal of hand hoeing.”
A number of plants died within 10 days after the Mid-South got 7 inches of rain last year. “We found out hemp does not like wet feet,” says Smith. “That leads to root disease, blight, and other problems.”
Additional trials are being grown on plastic mulch with underground drip tape delivering carefully metered irrigation and fertigation when it’s needed. “We’ve also been battling a lot of weed pressure from pigweed,” says Smith.
The company is working to supply genetics (seeds and clones) to producers in 2020.
Qualifications to grow and the law
To produce industrial hemp in the state of Tennessee, you have to be certified by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) and have your growing location identified not only with the TDA, but also with local law enforcement. Planting dates may vary but usually June or July is suggested.
TDA also mandates that it must be checked prior to harvest and processing. “The longer industrial hemp grows, the more tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) builds up in the plant, says John Butler, president, Agricenter International.
“In the trials SBX Farms is conducting this year, they’re also trying to determine when those THC levels start to accelerate in the various varieties and whether that escalation is caused by factors like heat, humidity, length of daylight, and other things,” says Butler.
SBX Farms is a vertically integrated ag business working with industrial hemp from seed to packaged product for wholesale distribution to shops and brand owners.
The industry and the various facets within it are expanding at an incredible rate. There are an estimated 115,000 to 138,000 acres of industrial hemp growing across the country this year. That figure may climb to over 400,000 acres in 2020.
The laws regarding industrial hemp production vary from state to state, as do the permitted levels of THC.