Ethan Steinquest/Macon County Times Tom Torgerson of Bonnie's Hemp Farm in Red Boiling Springs transitioned his operation from tobacco to industrial hemp and says his profits have multiplied as a result (his

Ethan Steinquest/Macon County Times

Tom Torgerson of Bonnie's Hemp Farm in Red Boiling Springs transitioned his operation from tobacco to industrial hemp and says his profits have multiplied as a result (his

Macon County's agricultural economy was dealt a heavy blow last year when Alliance One International, the area's top buyer, declined to renew its contracts with the Hartsville-based Holder Tobacco receiving station.

However, as a new growing season begins, area farmers are optimistic that industrial hemp production can help them regain ground after being federally legalized last December.

"We used to have well over 100 burley growers, and many of them would also grow corn and soybeans," Macon County University of Tennessee Extension Agent and Co-Director Keith Allen said. "It's going to be hard to replace burley tobacco for us in this area, especially the way our growing conditions and market were back in the heyday. (Industrial hemp) will probably be like tobacco was, with fewer growers but large acres."

Allen said that approximately 130 licenses for industrial hemp have been approved in the county, and there is an estimated 40-60 growers in the county because some farmers were approved for multiple fields.

One of those farmers, Tom Torgerson of Bonnie's Hemp Farm in Red Boiling Springs, had previously grown tobacco and made the switch to hemp last year.

"I grow it to make CBD oil," Torgerson said. "Last year, my friends out in Colorado contacted me about it when they saw what was happening with tobacco in Tennessee."

Although Torgerson was not reliant on tobacco for income, his personal success in selling hemp has inspired him to focus on the crop, and he has stopped working with tobacco, hay and cattle.

"Demand is high," Torgerson said. "I've got people from Macon County, Clay County, Tompkinsville, Kentucky ... this is way more profitable than tobacco. One acre of hemp oil outweighs five acres of tobacco easy."

If hemp meets those expectations, it could mean millions in sales-tax revenue.

Figures provided by Macon County Mayor Steve Jones from July 1, 2017, through Feb. 28, 2018, show profits of $164,000 for the county, $1.5 million for the school system and $1.35 million for Lafayette and Red Boiling Springs.

"I don't see anything in the future of it fading," Torgerson said. "One good thing about hemp is that it's all-natural. There's no chemicals, and if a young person wanted to get started, they could make a good living."

Those interested in hemp were able to connect with growers at Macon County's Hemp History Celebration on Saturday and learn about the crop and the industry. The event was held as part of the 10th annual nationwide Hemp History Week.

"We're trying to get the accurate facts (about industrial hemp) out to the public," Tennessee Hemp Industries Board member Darlene Gunther said, noting that the crop should not be confused with marijuana. "It's an excellent crop that has the potential to replace tobacco in our county … it tends to relieve pain, anxiety and help people sleep, is good for epilepsy or seizures, and relieves inflammation."

Gunther added that hemp seeds contain each of the human diet's essential amino acids and can be used as a full source of protein, and she said one of her major goals was to encourage safe consumer habits during the early stages of the industry.

"So far, there are no regulations put out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture," Gunther said. "They're coming, but they're just not out yet … so the consumer needs to know who they're buying from, whether it was grown organically (and to be able to see certificates of analysis)."

The event's attendees were also able to sample products from several vendors, learn about the history of hemp production and more. The gathering coincides with the growing season, which Allen said is now underway and should see all crops harvested by the fall.

According to Allen, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture is tasked with monitoring hemp production over the growing season to make sure tetrahydrocannabin (THC) levels do not exceed 0.3 percent. THC is the hallucinogenic compound in cannabis.

"The Tennessee Department of Agriculture will be monitoring it through the growing season for levels of THC, which is the hallucinogenic compound in cannabis," Allen said. "They'll be destroying crops that don't meet the guideline (no more than a 0.3-percent concentration)."

That influx of crops means more stock for local merchants.

Gunther, who also sells hemp-based oil products in the county, said that she has experienced an increasing demand among buyers. Although CBD oil is the most popular product made from the crop, it serves many other uses as well.

"Car dealerships can put the fiber in their door panels," Gunther said. "When properly processed, it's stronger than steel. It takes a tree 50-100 years to grow up and become paper, and you can grow this stuff in 100 days and make paper. It's good for biofuel, and we've got an empty biofuel plant toward Knoxville."

According to Allen, companies based in Knoxville and Owensboro, Kentucky, are already contracting to purchase from local farmers producing the crop.

"A lot of our farmers have infrastructure for burley tobacco and are testing industrial hemp to see if it's going to work for them," Allen said. "Others could be people with a few acres of land that have never grown a tomato plant, and those are the ones that are going to run into trouble."

Allen said that some of the problems people may experience include marketing the crop and managing insects or weeds.

"There's not a warehouse where they store industrial hemp, so I warn people that they'll have to find a place to sell it before they start production," Allen said. "Management and labor will also be very intensive. You wouldn't think insects would be drawn to these plants, but as they grow and start to bud, they attract them."

The biology of the plants may also prevent farmers from producing both CBD oil and fiber in the same area.

"When you're growing for fiber and you've got all these male plants, you don't care because you're just selling it for fiber," Gunther said. "But if your neighbor is growing (female plants) for CBD, you're going to pollinate your neighbor's crop and deplete their yield."

Although growers may find themselves getting used to new challenges, Gunther expects the crop to have a notable impact on the local economy.

"We're looking at hemp having (a similar impact to tobacco)," Gunther said, noting that revenue is also coming in through vendors like Walmart selling hemp-based oils and lotions. "Once this crop takes hold nationally, imports will go down, and we'll start supporting our own farms and economy. So, it has a potential for a huge impact."