BRISTOL, Tenn. — A pungent odor emanates from the barn at Sullivan County’s Merj Farm but defining the scent can prove tricky.
It might be described as an earthy or nutty aroma that somewhat resembles licorice. Some might say it has a skunk-like quality. Regardless, the smell comes from the farm’s first harvest of thousands of hemp — or cannabis sativa — plants drying in the rafters. Soon, the plants will have their cannabidiol, or CBD, extracted and prepared for a burgeoning consumer market.
Regardless of how it’s labeled, it smells like money.
Workers at Merj have spent the past two weeks harvesting the plants by hand — cutting each individually. They are hauled to the barn on a trailer painted for last year’s Bristol Christmas parade to resemble a child’s Radio Flyer red wagon. Once there, each plant is manually hung up in the barn — much like tobacco was once air cured. Few plants are taller than 5 feet but many are up to 9 feet wide.
Plants are expected to dry out for about two weeks and harvesting the entire 20 acres — potentially up to 20,000 plants — is expected to require an additional couple weeks, according to Merj CEO Howard Broadfoot.
“It takes about 160 days for the crop to be harvestable so we planted in stages — every couple weeks another field, then another field,” Broadfoot said last week during a visit to the barn. “They’re drying now. These plants have about 15% moisture content, so when they get down to about 10 to 12% we’ll take them and extract the oil.”
In the field or in the barn, hemp looks and smells much like its illegal cannabis cousin marijuana. The green leafy plant is the same genus and species as marijuana, but hemp contains only 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component which makes the other plant illegal and classified as a Schedule I drug by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
For that reason, Broadfoot said, the farm previously hosted area law enforcement officials to tour the farm and understand exactly what was growing there.
Locally owned and operated
The farm is owned by Frank Leonard, president and CEO of Electro-Mechanical Corp. in Bristol, Virginia. Leonard holds the state license under the name Lime Hill LLC, a limited liability company.
Hemp production is allowed under terms of the 2018 Farm Bill and is currently grown in 24 states. Tennessee ranked fifth in U.S. hemp production in 2018 with about 3,300 acres, according to a report by Hemp Industry Daily.
Merj plants were created through a cloning process rather than grown from seed and were planted during May, Broadfoot said. Harvesting began Oct. 3 and is expected to continue for much of this month.
“We’re still uncertain, but this has been a really good crop. We didn’t know what to expect having never planted hemp before,” Broadfoot said. “The weather cooperated very well. It was hot at the end, and it’s supposed to be hot for these plants. No rain at the beginning was tough, so we had to water every day, but we got a good bit of rain during the summer. We didn’t have winds or a hailstorm or anything like that, so it was better than we expected.”
Workers planted three different strains to learn which grew best under the region’s conditions and to see which yielded the most CBD.
“All of these are demonstrated to grow very well in our region, and they all did. Once we start the extraction process we’ll know if we got more oil from this variant,” he said. “We did some testing, trying to maximize the CBD content before we harvest. They’re ranging in the 13% to 15% CBD, which is very good. We were hoping for 10% to 12%, and every sample we sent has been above that. We had great weather. This year could be a bumper crop, next year could not.”
Anything above 3% CBD content is worth harvesting, Broadfoot said.
Growing the future
Licensed by the state of Tennessee to grow 212 acres of hemp, Merj has the potential to be among the state’s largest CBD and hemp producers. The original license was for 187 acres, but this summer Merj owner Russell Leonard sought and received a license to expand the operation by 25 additional acres.
A state Department of Agriculture listing shows Merj permitted acreage ranks among the 15 largest in the state. More than 6,400 licenses have been issued.
That same list, obtained in June 2019 through a Tennessee Freedom of Information Act request, shows more than 20 Sullivan County residents possess a combined 60 state licenses to grow hemp in both indoor and outdoor settings.
Extraction to begin soon
The plants are expected to hang dry in the barn for about 14 days.
“It’s a lot like tobacco. Well, we’re treating it like tobacco. That’s what those guys know, so that’s what we’re treating it like,” Broadfoot said.
Once dry, Merj will process the plants in its own facility. Earlier this year the company converted the 18,000-square-foot former Centre in Bristol, Tennessee from a dining and entertainment venue into its production center.
Merj intends to process and market its own line of CBD products for a wide range of health conditions.
“The production facility is ready to operate,” Broadfoot said. “We’ve done all our production trials, and we’re just waiting on the crop now. We’ll be processing our own material in the next two to three weeks.”