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The New Tobacco

Kyle Owen, 36, leans against a wooden post, smoking a cigarette, gazing at the crops stockpiled in his barn. A row of rusted wagons are stuffed with thousands of long brown stalks of handpicked tobacco, which was the backbone of his harvest for 15 years. His American Dream was built on tobacco, but now it barely pays the bills.

Fortunately, next to the line of wagons, a new dream has sprouted. Sixty bales of hemp fiber, each weighing close to 800 pounds, are stacked in the barn and waiting to be to be shipped to a processing company. This is Owen’s first hemp harvest. Most likely, he says, it is the first of many.

“I’m proud that I jumped out on a limb and tried it,” Owen says. “And, to be honest with you, when I stand here and think about it, I’ve got high hopes of a future in it. Hopefully, it’s not a fad.”

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Kyle Owen stands near bales of hemp in a barn on his farm in Carthage. Owen is a career tobacco farmer but planted hemp for the first time this year.

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Juan Albert Hernandez Amaro unloads tobacco at Kyle Owen’s farm in Carthage. PHOTOS BY SHELLEY MAYS / THE TENNESSEAN

Owen is not alone. Faced with the decreasing profitability of tobacco and an expanding market of hemp products, some of Tennessee’s longtime tobacco farmers are abandoning the state’s traditional cash crop and embracing a lucrative but largely uncharted hemp industry. Much of that hemp is used in increasingly popular products containing cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD, which is advertised as having broad but often unverified health benefits. Some farmers, including Owen, also say they are positioning themselves for the possibility of growing marijuana if it becomes legal to farm in Tennessee.

“If it’s legal,” he said, “it’s just another crop to me.”

Hemp, which is closely related to marijuana but has no psychoactive effect, has been legal to grow in Tennessee for five years through a closely monitored government pilot program. State records show that most licensed growers are small hobbyists, farming only a few acres, but commercial-scale hemp farming is rising quickly, in part because the industry is recruiting struggling tobacco farmers.

Tobacco has long been a cash crop in rural Tennessee, largely grown on fam-

“The profit margins that we are hearing about – especially for CBD hemp – are unheard of. Honestly, it sounds a little too good to be true.”

Kyle Owen


ily farms in what is still one of the most smoking-friendly states in the nation. However, many farmers now say tobacco profitability has faded due to a combination of decreased demand, bad harvests and competition from oversea farmers who aren’t required to meet American labor standards. Switching to hemp, they say, is just good business.

This year, as least seven of the state’s top 10 hemp farmers come from tobacco-growing backgrounds, including the state’s biggest hemp growers, brothers Zeke and Eli Green, who said their family has grown tobacco for seven generations. Starting this year, the Green brothers are licensed to grow about 2,600 acres of hemp – more than the rest of the state combined – on their farm in Greenfield.

“For now, we are growing it like tobacco, because that’s what we know,” Eli Green said. “But we’ve already learned so much we will definitely do some things different next year.”

Owen, who is the third largest hemp grower in Tennessee, also joined the industry this year, planting about 250 acres of fiber hemp alongside 300 acres of tobacco. He now expects the fiber hemp and tobacco yields to generate approximately the same income, even though the hemp required about a 100th as much labor to grow and harvest. Soon, he will sell his hefty bales of hemp to Sunstrand, a Kentucky company that will use it to make building materials, housing insulation and even car parts.

Next year, Owen plans to expand again, planting 400 acres of fiber hemp and converting two-thirds of his tobacco acreage to CBD hemp, which is used to make medicinal oils, lotions and other consumables. CBD hemp is more laborious and expensive to grow, costing thousands per acre, but potentially more profitable than tobacco ever was.

“The profit margins that we are hearing about – especially for CBD hemp – are unheard of,” Owen said. “Honestly, it sounds a little too good to be true.”

The CBD market is booming

This mix of hope and skepticism is not uncommon in Tennessee’s blossoming hemp industry, which is largely driven by medicinal claims that have not been verified by the Food and Drug Administration. Advocates will argue that CBD can be used to alleviate pain, seizures, insomnia, stress and a seemingly endless list of other ailments, but the only CBD medicinal application approved by the FDA is Epidiolex, a new medicine used to treat a rare form of epilepsy.

Regardless, CBD products are now sold widely, available in everything from specialized dispensary-like shops to simple convenience stores. Although once considered taboo for its close association to marijuana, CBD’s mainstream status hit new heights in September when Coca Cola announced it was considering a hemp-infused soda.

“I think that announcement alone was a lot of why there is a scramble right now,” said William Corbin, one of the most knowledgeable hemp farmers in the state. “I’m not sure how shortlived this rush is going to be before this turns into a very reliable commodity – just like tobacco.”

Corbin, 56, a third-generation tobacco farmer, joined Tennessee’s hemp pilot program five years ago, trying to position himself to someday grow medical marijuana. Corbin said those first years were like “walking the dark,” as pioneering farmers experimented with a crop they didn’t understand. Entire crops were lost to rookie mistakes, he said. Anyone who did manage a harvest struggled to find a buyer.

But all of that changed this year as large hemp processing companies have begun to contract farmers in advance, giving this young industry a foundation on which it can grow. For example, Corbin recently signed a contract to produce 60,000 pounds of CBD hemp within a year.

To meet that order, he will have no choice but to expand.

“This industry, everything is moving so fast, it would literally make your head spin,” Corbin said. “To new growers, they are feeling the same anxiety that some of us felt some time ago. But they don’t understand though – most of the heavy lifting has been done.”

Brett Kelman is the health care reporter for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 615-259-8287 or at brett.kelman@ Follow him on Twitter at @brettkelman

“This industry, everything is moving so fast, it would literally make your head spin. To new growers, they are feeling the same anxiety that some of us felt some time ago. But they don’t understand though – most of the heavy lifting has been done.”

William Corbin

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