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Hemp 'explosion' has Blount roots

To many it might seem that hemp, controversial for years when caught up in a web of marijuana laws, is trendy, with CBC now common on store shelves.

You might say that when the Tennessee Industrial Hemp Agricultural Pilot Program was authorized with passage of the Agricultural Act of 2014, hemp was conceived as a farming business.

You could note that with the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, a fledgling hemp industry was born in the U.S.

Add to that the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s hemp program changes announced June 3 to better serve producers. All marked the emerging history of hemp as an agricultural product in Tennessee.

Just don’t tell Ryan Rush that the hemp industry has “matured.”

“It has exploded. Not matured. It’s exploded. OK?” Rush said, making an instant correction.

OK. He should know. His personal history goes back to 2012 when his brother John was diagnosed with cancer. What his brother had was bad enough.

“It was grim,” Ryan Rush said. What the family didn’t have made it even worse — the money needed to cover the cost of traditional medical care.

What Ryan learned — driven by desperation, it would be fair to say — about the reputed benefits of cannabidiol (CBD) turned him into a farmer. A small farmer by any measure, but an artisan grower with a mission.

“I started as the smallest processor and grower in the United States pilot program in 2016. I quickly became one of the most successful here in Tennessee. Not in terms of size, not in terms of land, not in terms of the amount of plants but in terms of the amount of — I’m going to say quote, unquote ‘success’ — because of how much we’ve been able to turn out from this location here,” Rush said.

He was being interviewed about the TDA’s Department of Agriculture’s revamped hemp regulations. It didn’t take insightful questioning to reveal the passion that fired his ambition to found his Maryville-based business, Rush Hemp Farms.

“I’m very, very proud of the fact that I was one of the smallest people to start this industrial pilot program in America and prove that you can make a very real living off of plants that have been in a Prohibition Era the last 80-plus years. And someone like myself can go from landscaping and construction and odd jobs and cooking to growing a plant that helps not only humans but the earth and other agricultural industries, animal husbandry, creating homes, health, happiness and economy from a plant that is accessible.”

The words were spoken with hardly a break for a breath in a controlled stream of consciousness. Rush was standing in the heart of his hemp operation, a 160-square-foot greenhouse. A hand-hewn space, it isn’t an agricultural Shangri-La, but it is the object of jealousy from some quarters.

“I try to be as low-budget and as low-tech as I can possibly can. There’s people who run like million-dollar greenhouses, and when they see I’m putting out like, 5,000 cuts out of about 160 square foot, they’re like, ‘That’s not fair, man,’” Rush recounted.

“I’m like, ‘It’s not my fault, I understand what I’m doing.’ Like, you can put out a lot of plants, and personally we’re trying to turn two more 5,000 turns out of this small area before this season’s over.”

At $4 a clone, with the cuttings clipped and planted in special soil, that’s about $20,000 from 160 square foot of cloning space in one planting. In the small space he can turn $40,000 in nine weeks, “If you know what you’re doing.”

Bigger deals to come

He has deals with five other farm nurseries to take care of Rush Hemp Farms’ bigger orders. And big is exactly what Rush expects as the hemp business “explodes.”

That stream of consciousness returned as Rush reflected on the impact of TDA’s newly relaxed rules.

“You’re going to have large, large, large entities start coming in, like R.J. Reynolds and Purdue and Monsanto and stuff like that, basically pulling the Walmart model. But for the next three to five years, rural and urban, they can both profit from it. Now that fiber hemp, hemp plastics, hemp clothing, hemp pressboard, hemp floors, all this stuff is becoming mainstream, you have the interest of row croppers who do 200 acres of corn. You have the interest of someone who has 50 acres but doesn’t want to spend the time of growing an artisan-grade product like a CBD flower or making a CBD T-shirt. They just want to till, throw down some fertilizer, throw down a bunch of seed and come back in 90 days with a combine and harvest it and sell it off. Great. Awesome. I think that’s great. I think that’s wonderful. I think you should do it. This gives the encouragement to that row cropper to say, ‘Maybe I should go from corn and wheat to hemp.’”

State says go for it

Which is fine with Will Freeman, public information officer for TDA. The new hemp rules stem from “an increase in interest here in Tennessee among growers and us wanting to partner with farmers to help them out.”

Changes in the law put the Agriculture Department into another gear regarding hemp. Now it’s basically just another crop. They’ve read the law, listened to the farmers.

“It really is a little bit of everything that let us realize that there’s a few ways we could update our program to better serve the users of the product,” Freeman said.

That extends to working with law enforcement to delineate the distinction between legal hemp and illegal marijuana.

“We want to make sure that we are good partners in this process and are doing things that don’t make life too difficult on them,” Freeman said, speaking of cooperation with local authorities.

Rush is enthusiastic about the new rules: “Good. Very good. Very, very good.” But he’s not a fan of letting the mega-businesses totally reign over the hemp markets to come.

“There should be no limits except for major corporations, I believe, like Purdue and Monsanto and R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris and all them. They should absolutely have restrictions because they have the power to buy judges and buy politicians,” Rush said.

Recall that while money was a key reason Rush got into the hemp business, it wasn’t his inspiration.

Today, his brother John is beyond the all the chemicals and other traditional cancer treatments. Seven years in remission and with all that long out of his system, John Rush is, as Ryan succinctly said, “Alive and well.”

Residency now at 11; Townsend's ABR receives cub from South Carolina

The latest black bear cub to arrive at Townsend’s Appalachian Bear Rescue did so Tuesday afternoon, joining seven other cubs and three yearlings, placing residency now at 11.

The bear, named Jessamine, was brought here from South Carolina by airplane, said Dana Dodd, executive director of ABR. The bear’s other family members had been hit by a car, she said, and this one had climbed a tree, not intending to come down anytime soon.

Wildlife officials in South Carolina had to dart the small bear to complete the rescue. She weighs 19 pounds.

On board the plane that went to retrieve Jessamine were ABR curator Coy Blair, the pilot and Dr. Andrew Cushing, a veterinarian from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. The flight back to Sevier County took about 30 minutes.

Once on the ground, ABR officials took the cub to its facility. She joins two other cubs, Bentley and Dandelion, in their cub nursery. These siblings are from Polk County. Another ABR cub house is home to the “party of five” as they have come to be referred to on social media. The beary triplets — Blackbeary, Bluebeary and Hucklebeary — along with two cubs rescued from Louisiana, Beignet and Boudreaux.

Iris, Sweetie and Daffodil are the yearlings being housed in ABR’s wild enclosure. They are 17 months old. The three females have adapted well to being in the same enclosed area, ABR officials have said. Hartley, also a yearling, was returned to the wild back in May after making a remarkable recovery. He came into ABR on Feb. 14 with severe fur loss and weighed only 11 pounds. He was returned to the wild in Kentucky weighing a healthy 73.6 pounds.

ABR takes in orphaned black bears and nurtures them back to health before releasing them back into the wild. They have received bears from states across the Southeast. UT provides the medical care for them. There are four curators at ABR — Blair, Tom Faulkner, Janet Dalton and David Whitehead.

It costs about $3,000 to rehabilitate each bear, more if they require specialized care at UTCVM.

Alcoa raises property taxes 31 cents

After recent losses and lack of growth in revenue Alcoa has now raised its property tax rate from $1.96 to match Maryville’s rate at $2.27.

Alcoa commissioners voted to approve the fiscal 2020 budget and subsequent property tax increase with a three-vote majority Tuesday night.

Commissioners Jim Buchanan and Ken White voted no on the resolution after expressing their fear the tax increase may have a significant impact on the community, especially those living in poverty.

“This tax increase is to replace the revenues we’ve basically lost in actual dollars and lack of growth in our revenues over the past three or four years,” City Manager Mark Johnson told commissioners. “It gets us some things we need to have and hopefully it will bridge the gap between where we are right now and the new development that we anticipate going on over the course of the next couple of years.”

Johnson told gathered city officials during a May budget workshop that a combination of issues had damaged the city’s fiscal intake including an error in airport revenue, losses resulting from a combination of the state’s internet sales tax system and Alcoa’s demographics, current property taxes and consumption taxes.

The result left the city nearly $1 million in the red.

Johnson showed in his presentation there were two ways to manage the situation: either cut spending or raise revenue. He argued that because a cut in spending would have meant a reduction in services and raising sales taxes was not feasible, property taxes would have to go up.

Comparing current rates to neighboring governments, Johnson showed how, over time, Alcoa had dropped its rate to $1.96 where it has stayed consistently since 2009. Maryville and Blount County’s rates have fluctuated over the year and now sit at $2.27 for Maryville and $2.47 for the county.

He went on to note there were two theories of tax increases. Some governments choose to increase taxes gradually and some to increase when needed. He said Alcoa had chosen the “when needed” model, moments later posing the question “what will our citizens think?”

Johnson then showed responses from Alcoans rating the value of city services for tax dollars, showing 88.3% found these to be good or excellent. A total 96.1% of Alcoa’s population rated the city a good or excellent “overall place to live,” statistics from Johnson’s presentation showed.

But there was trepidation on the commission as the tax hike came to a vote.

“(This increase) seems to me like it’s going to be a real burden on quite a few people,” Commissioner Ken White said before the vote. “Even if they rent property the owner of that property is going to have to go up.”

Commissioner Jim Buchanan thanked White for his comments. “We have to keep in mind the community we’re in ... A large portion of people in this community we’re in are on fixed income,” he said. “This is a big impact.”

“I hate to do it,” Commissioner Vaughn Belcher said after a pause.

“I hate to, too,” Mayor Clint Abbot responded, though he was eager to pass the resolution with as little discussion as possible.

“It makes sense when you understand the reasons that we have to do it,” Commissioner Tanya Martin.

Johnson said planned development in the near future will hopefully curb some of the city’s financial woes, pointing out that some of the first developments in the Springbrook Farm project are set for platting in a “couple weeks.”

Johnson looked to City Planner Jeremy Pearson to confirm and Pearson said he was “hoping” development in the area may come as soon as this summer.

“There’s an awful lot of stuff going on,” Johnson said. “And I think it will take some time.”

The fiscal 2020 budget will take effect beginning July 1.