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CannaBeat: Farmers Grow Hemp at Shelby Farms

An unmistakable scent: the future.


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When I stepped off the hayride, I wondered if I was smelling what I was smelling or if I was only smelling it in my brain.

Before me was a stand of hemp plants for CBD, hundreds of them, each maybe three feet high. It looked to be about a half-acre of the deep-green plants I'd seen only in the pages of High Times. I'd seen the dried buds, of course, but I'd never seen the stuff actually growing out in a field like that. It felt surreal. It felt illegal.

Even though it wasn't marijuana — you could smoke the whole field and not get high — it was a mesmerizing sight. It was made all the more mesmerizing by the traffic along Walnut Grove, sliding by casually and maybe obliviously. If those drivers saw the plot, they might have wondered, "Can you grow that at Agricenter International?"

SBX Farms leaders - Steven Smith (left) and Boyd Vancil (right) discussed hemp production at Agricenter International last week. - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • SBX Farms leaders Steven Smith (left) and Boyd Vancil (right) discussed hemp production at Agricenter International last week.

The answer is yes. That plot is under the expert eyes of SBX Farms, a Memphis company unafraid of trying new crops here. Twenty years ago, the company planted a hemp crop (kenaf) at Agricenter.

Since then, SBX has planted sugar beets as a possible source of an alternative material for plastics, and switchgrass and sweet sorghum as alternatives for fossil fuels.

Last year, SBX planted its first stand of hemp for CBD (which they still just call hemp) at the huge agriculture research facility at Shelby Farms.

"We know these crops grow well in California, Oregon, and even in East Tennessee," Steven D. Smith, SBX director of operations, said during a presentation at the Future of Ag Field Day last week. "They don't tend to like the climate we have here in the Mississippi Delta. It's hot, sticky, humid, with all sorts of diseases and pests. We want to see what's going to work and what's not going to work."

The company will test the plants for everything from fertility to how well they handle stress.

No pesticide has been approved for use on hemp since the plant was made legal for commercial growing in the 2018 Farm Bill. Moves are in place to change that for the 2020 growing season.

SBX president Boyd Vancil said the company uses all-organic products on its Agricenter hemp stand. It's a move with his customers in mind. For SBX, that means makers of typical products like skin creams.

"Some markets will absolutely not tolerate [residual pesticides] in your crop, and they will do testing," he said last week.

By the time I left the CBD patch, I knew I was smelling that unmistakable scent. It was the future.

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