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.”

Bob has served in a variety of roles since joining The Daily Times in the 90s. He currently is editor of the business section. When someone gets promoted, retires or gets hired at a new job in Blount County, he's the man to email.

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