Tennessee State University leading the way in the research of hemp, the ‘new cash crop’

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When Tonya Lewis decided to become a hemp grower and learn more about the “new cash crop,” the Nashville resident turned to a leading researcher of the plant: Tennessee State University.

“It helped me understand where the state is in regards to research on hemp, and how to go about getting everything from a license to actually grow hemp, to looking at the benefits of it statewide, as far as economically,” said Lewis, who attended one of several hemp workshops hosted by TSU’s College of Agriculture.

TSU is among the nation’s leaders in hemp research, and the recently passed U.S. Farm Bill is making sure it remains at the forefront.

The bill Congress approved in December legalizes the growth and manufacturing of industrial hemp, the cannabis plant with little of the chemical that can cause a high. The legalization clears the way for existing programs at land-grant institutions like TSU to expand research and development programs for medicinal and textile production.

“I am excited for this opportunity for TSU, and I look forward to seeing how this will help produce the next generation of agricultural leaders in our state,” said Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper.

Historically, industrial hemp has been regarded primarily as an agricultural crop valued for fiber and grain. Hemp fiber is used to make textiles, building materials, animal bedding, mulch, paper, industrial products, and biofuels. Hemp grain, or seed, is used in food and feed products, and oil from the seed is used to make personal care products and industrial products, including paints, solvents, and lubricants.

“This is the new cash crop,” said Lewis, who attended the Southern Hemp Expo in Nashville last year. “There’s a multitude of uses for it. It could do a lot to revitalize the agricultural industry in Tennessee, as well as other states.”

TSU’s College of Agriculture has charged a team of scientists to develop hemp production practices for Tennessee. The research projects include developing hemp nutritional products for human consumption and studying the economic viability of hemp production in Tennessee. Currently, the university is growing and evaluating 10 varieties of hemp.

“TSU wants to be at the forefront of this new interest that’s cropping up across the country,” said Dr. Chandra Reddy, dean of the College of Agriculture. “If it’s ever approved for large scale use, we have some knowledge about it and can work with the farmers.”

TSU has hosted several hemp workshops, including one on Jan. 11 with the Tennessee Hemp Industries Association, an advocate for the production of industrial hemp. More than 200 people attended the meeting.

Joe Kirkpatrick, president of the TNHIA, said Tennessee currently has the largest state HIA chapter in the nation and he credited “TSU for helping us facilitate those meetings and outreach to the public.”

“It’s also great to have the world-class laboratories and scientists there, the researchers, to help … move the hemp industry forward,” Kirkpatrick said.

Michael Walls is one of the many farmers who has benefited from TSU hemp researchers. His family has a 140-acre farm in Hardeman County that is using an acre to grow hemp.

“There’s a lot of potential for what hemp can do,” said Walls, adding that his family plans to broaden their hemp growth. “I’m just trying to get more information to see what other possibilities there are.”

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