A transformation is taking place in northeast Tennessee, one that could propel the region to being recognized as the hub of hemp production for the Southeast and beyond.
For many years, Merj family farmland in Sullivan County supported stocks of cattle and crops of corn and alfalfa. Now, following passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which provided for industrial hemp cultivation, the first of many Cannabis sativa seedlings are going into the ground.
Merj is a vertically integrated company focused on the production of high-quality, full-spectrum cannabinoid (commonly known as CBD) products derived from hemp. Established in 2018, the Bristol, Tenn.-based company taking advantage of surging interest in the plant, which has attracted the attention of medical researchers and entrepreneurs for its potential range of therapeutic effects.
Hemp is also under the eye of investors, with deals valued in the hundreds of millions taking place on a near-weekly basis. Major financial institutions predict the market to grow exponentially as premier companies such as CVS, Walgreens, PepsiCo, Walmart and Target are either already stocking CBD-based items on the shelf or exploring the integration of CBD into product lines.
“The 2018 Farm Bill triggered a fundamental shift in the way America does business, on the kind of scale you see maybe once in a generation,” said Russell Leonard, founder of Merj. “This is a very exciting time, one that’s bringing a sense of hope to people who are looking for products that can help soothe and balance their lives. It’s also creating a new sense of purpose for those in the agriculture industry, and providing our region a unique opportunity to play a central role in this emerging market.”
Merj is one of the larger hemp growers in Tennessee, with resources that include nearly 200 acres of licensed grow space in Sullivan County — as well as a new, 18,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art processing facility designed to process biomass, extract CBD compounds, and test the finished product for purity and potency.
Hemp contains a complex mix of compounds, including phytocannabinoids and terpenes, that seem to interact with the human nervous system on the molecular level. In particular, medical researchers are studying how these compounds influence the endocannabinoid system, a network of receptors in the body that help regulate pain, inflammation, mood, mobility and more.
Hemp lacks the psychoactive compound known as THC that produces a sense of euphoria. Because industrial hemp contains less than .3 percent THC, it is legal for sale and use throughout the U.S. and dozens of countries worldwide.
“It’s not yet fully known how the dozens and dozens of compounds found in hemp interact with our nervous systems, so we’ve invested in extraction processes that help preserve full-spectrum integrity of our products,” Leonard said. “We want to make sure that all the goodness in these mountains goes into what we provide our customers.”
In addition to processing its own biomass, Merj plans to offer extraction and testing services for other industrial hemp farmers.
“We feel very fortunate to have decades of farming knowledge and business ingenuity backing this operation,” Leonard said. “We’re well positioned to enter and compete in this market, which I believe will have transformational effects on our region’s identity and success.”