from tobacco farming to hemp in tennessee

I was born the daughter of farmers. They were born into farming, too. Granddaddy actually owned a tobacco “loose floor” where tobacco farmers brought their crops for sale. Some of my favorite childhood memories were watching those bales of cured, bronzed leaves go up for auction while old men stood around talking about the weather.

Most born-and-raised Southerners are connected in some way, often much to our chagrin, to the tobacco farm. Still, as far as those roots run, you can bet religious doctrine did the digging. It’s the bible belt, and more precise… the buckle of the bible belt where I live. Those who still polish that old buckle often cast shade on one of the few plants which clothes, shelters, and even heals—hemp.

Could such a miracle plant move ignorance toward the light, offering promise of a more verdant future?

Third generation farmer, William Corbin believes so. He grew tobacco, grain, and cattle just a county over from my family in Springfield, TN for years. He and I never met until now. But, since we share a last name, I’m sure the Corbin family quilt shares our lineage somewhere.

Like many farmers in the area, he’s worked hard to diversify his business as agronomy catapults crops into a new frontier. He says that “unless you have literally thousands of acres, traditional grains are very limited as far as profitability. Renting ground is very expensive. You have to have substantial financial assets to compete with these row croppers. I chose not to do that.” He’s hopeful that society is evolving with healthier choices.

Corbin’s Dual-Purpose Grain and Fiber Field

If y’all haven’t already guessed, Tennessee hasn’t legalized cannabis yet.

“You can’t be too diversified,” says Corbin. About four years ago he began researching alternative crops that concentrated profits with fewer acres. As he’s a firm believer in medical cannabis, he knew that one day it will be licensed in the state of TN. “When they started licensing for industrial hemp production, to me, it only made sense to get involved and networked,” says Corbin.

Corbin is now a Tennessee Hemp Industry Association board member and is in regular attendance of drug task force meetings. He says that the Tennessee senate judiciary committee is quite the stumbling block in efforts toward cannabis legalization. So much so that he believes there will be several more election cycles before there are “fresh minds more acceptable of proving science.”

Baby steps, y’all. Baby steps.

It was only last year when the Tennessee Department of Agriculture began allowing hemp producers to present genetics for approval or rejection. The State of Tennessee limits extractions to 3/10 of 1% of THC for the purpose of CBD production from hemp. To date, Tennessee farmers pay for all the testing and it’s expensive. Even still, Corbin says this was a major game changer.

Corbin’s Grain Vacuum

Now that he’s established the genetics, Corbin says Nashville company XTracts, a leader in the field of CBD extractions, “buy a lot of flower from me.” XTracts is located just outside of Nashville. These sales are not without a foray into dense bureaucracy though. Corbin says, “If you want to be a part of this industry, you’re going to have to produce paperwork of chain of possession to prove product and the components utilized in the product are extractions from industrial hemp and not marijuana. That’s as clear as night and day.”

So, who else is in the chain of possession?

Kat Merryfield of Kat’s Naturals is just around the bend from Chattanooga. She’s been in the business of natural healing for more than 15 years. She values working with the high quality oils that she blends from Tennessee stock, which XTracts produces. While her CBD products fly off the virtual shelf, she believes that education is key in dispelling myths. “It’s a new industry with so much information. We’ll always have a booth at the farmers market, no matter how big we get,” she says.

Explore a little further down that chain and you’ll find folks like twenty-something cattle farmer, Jonathan Gunn. He lives just up the road from Corbin’s hemp farm. He’s an agriculture student at Western Kentucky University currently studying hemp production. “I’m interested on a human level. But, if it helps us, it can also help my cattle.” Gunn is currently using Corbin’s hemp waste as supplemental feed and bedding for his herd.

Medical professionals like Dr. Kathleen Inman of East Nashville Chiropractic have also witnessed CDB’s healing effects first hand. Inman treats a 78-year-old woman with chronic pain. After one application, the patient didn’t require her arthritis brace. Another patient exhibiting signs of dementia can now keep a fluid conversation going. “I’m no expert when it comes to CBD, but I believe it’s reducing inflammation, no matter where it is in the body,” she says.

Despite this growing acceptance of hemp products, Corbin says his neighbors have been indifferent and disinterested.“It’s very disappointing, I thought they would be more accepting.” He chalks this up to lack of knowledge as opposed to ideations. Whatever the reason, I am hopeful that my long-lost distant cousin and his chain are preparing the way for less pain, more joy, and a sense of place only found in Tennessee.

“There’s a small number of us moving the crop forward to make it a viable option. Now there are genetics and processing that an anxious market is looking for,” Corbin says. His family business is on target to harvest 15 acres of high CBD fields, two acres of high CBD greenhouses, and 20-25 dual-purpose grain and fiber fields. He continues building his mother stock consistently maintaining at least 400 plants. And his application for two new Colorado varieties just received Tennessee Department of Agriculture approval. Meanwhile, many growers source their seedlings from Corbin in an effort to become one more link in that chain of possession.

I will never have the chance to hug my Grandaddy’s neck again. While tobacco would eventually take him from us, he made a living off the industry. He provided for his family while offering a legacy on which we’ve all built. If he were still living, I’d like to think he would be right there in the thick of it all with folks like Corbin. He would have encouraged the Jonathan Gunns of the world to gain as much knowledge as they could muster to make this world a better place. Sure as the sun rises, the tradition of farming must evolve with the needs of its people.

 

Melissa Corbin is a Nashville-based freelance journalist telling the stories of folks who care about their world’s future. Published by AAA Traveler, Travel Channel, Edible Communities, NPR and USA Today, she’s also the producer of Corbin In The Dell- a travel podcast about folks who give a damn and features local music. You can find her work at corbininthedell.com. You can find her on instagram and on twitter.