Over the past year, a team of agronomists, soil scientists and food scientists at Tennessee State University have been trying to figure out just what bud (of the cannabis variety) grows best in Tennessee. In September, faculty at TSU — one of the country’s leaders in hemp research — hosted a forum on hemp and cannabidiol (CBD) with the aim of educating Tennessee farmers on the varieties they can expect to have success with. Hemp, like marijuana, is a variety of the cannabis plant. But with its non-psychoactive properties (less than 1-percent THC), it not only differs genetically, but also with how its used and the way it’s cultivated.
Fitzroy Bullock, who coordinated the forum, is one of the university’s leading researchers on hemp, working at TSU as a professor within the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Bullock says prior to the research, he and his team didn’t know much about hemp or CBD and their individual properties, but through the research, they are breaking ground that could be helpful to Tennessee farmers.
“Here at TSU, people look to us for leadership, and because of that, we are working to identify best practices for growing hemp and to create assessments for sustainability,” Bullock says. “We have evaluated 10 varieties in unreplicated tests this year, and we have seen some that we are definitely going to look at again. We are trying to find and take out all the little bumps that the farmers would otherwise encounter.”
In March of this year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed the legalization of hemp via the Hemp Farming Act. Hemp has been grown and used for centuries, but in recent years, its production has increased rapidly.
Because the industry is expanding, Bullock and the team of researchers at TSU want to provide as much information as possible on Tennessee-friendly varieties to help farmers make informed decisions about the green they grow. Half Hill Farm in Woodbury, Tenn., is about an hour from downtown Nashville and was the first certified organic grower of industrial hemp in the state of Tennessee, according to the farm’s website, which also claims they “helped change state law to allow growers and producers to focus on the promising health benefits of CBD.”
Half Hill currently uses organic industrial hemp from Kentucky, but with the help of TSU’s findings, they could potentially move into growing their own. “We are looking only at the yield and production of the plant because the mission of the extension is to help people gain more knowledge so they can run their business successfully. It would be helpful to any farmer to know a little bit more — it could really have a positive economic impact,” says Latif Lighari, associate dean for the College of Agriculture.
Lighari said the team is also hoping to dispel some of the rumors about the plant, one rumor being that hemp — which is the fiber that is harvested from the cannabis plant — has the same psychoactive properties as marijuana. That’s not the case.
Unlike marijuana, hemp contains very little THC, the compound in the plant that can cause a user to get high. Marijuana is composed of as much as 30 percent THC, while hemp fibers contain less than a tenth of that amount.
“CBD comes from hemp. Hemp is not legalized, but CBD is legal in all 50 states, and it’s a great nutritional supplement,” says Anand Kumar, a graduate research assistant with the project. Kumar explains that there are essential amino acids found in CBD, which comes from the bud and the leaves of the plant, that the human body doesn’t form naturally.
“The interest in hemp here in Tennessee is not dependent on whether someone has the money to get into it — we find that the simple backyard person up to big pharmaceutical groups, they all have interest in this program," Dr. Bullock says. "This work could open the doors wide open.”
Kumar agreed, citing that there are more than 25,000 products that can be made of hemp. The more research that is conducted to weed out incompatible cultivars, the faster Tennessee farmers will be able to start growing hemp — and boost Tennessee’s agricultural sector because of it.
“There are increased charges on tobacco now, and as Tennessee farmers are struggling, hemp could be a good transition for them. There has been research on corn and tobacco, and they found that hemp is more profitable. It can be really fruitful for the humans, livestock and the environment. This plant is really magic,” he said. “And all this extensive research, other [Tennessee institutions] haven’t started yet, but we have it here. Next year will be more concrete.