Nashville was hit hard this year with a tornado in March that plummeted down on Jefferson street, a vital artery that linked historical Nashville to the new Nashville. Tennessee State University (TSU) and many of its neighboring small businesses felt the brunt that left buildings with their roofs ripped off and classrooms in ruins.
“Three of the four buildings on the TSU main campus were totally destroyed, and the welfare of the animals and greenhouses are still in question,” says Professor Fitzroy Bullock of the TSU Department of Agriculture and Environmental Science. “The entire agricultural farm [on the main campus] was basically wiped out to the ground. That includes about eight greenhouses, eight cookhouses, the farm shop, our conference center, the educational building, about 450 acres of land… all of those were completely wired out to the ground.”
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, bringing more devastation and uncertainty. But the research and cultivation being done in cannabis on the TSU campus hasn’t stopped. Professors are determined to teach by any means necessary.
There are two important programs happening at TSU that involve the cultivation and production of cannabis plants for general market consumption. One such program is a partnership with Eufloria Medical of Tennessee, Inc., an emerging cannabis company that will be manufacturing material for the university study. The research partnership aims to create a safe and chemical-free vehicle to obtain the health benefits of the whole-hemp plant into virtually anything from food and beverages to topical creams.
“We are first and foremost a research institution and always interested in shortening that knowledge gap,” says Dr. Ying Wu, associate professor Food and Animal Science and lead researcher of the HEMP grant that is funded by Eufloria Medical of Tennessee. “We have two students, one full time working on this grant; one with the seed and the other with the plant. We analyze how to grow it, how it will work when being processed from seed to fiber (used for oils). There are too many uncertainties.”
Positioned in a brilliant and progressive part of the state, TSU belongs to a group of other specialized colleges that include Meharry Medical College, Fisk University and American Baptist College that prioritize the education of Black students. TSU, like Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, is an agriculture-focused institution where graduate students are called “plant scientists” and are graded on their analyses of the growth of seeds and plants.
There is a team of scientists who were asked to develop hemp production practices for the entire state. Their research projects include developing hemp-based nutritional products for human consumption and studying the economic viability of hemp production.
“Our research and education on cannabis started in 2017 when there were only 300 registered growers in the state. In 2019 that number grew to over 3400 registered applications, all of whom were farmers who had to learn everything from scratch. That kept us pretty busy,” says Professor Bullock. “TSU became the educators to the state farmers, agency workers, and other educators. Our staff is small but we became experts in evaluating different varieties of cannabis for the Tennessee environment. We’ve collected great data.”
Extensions of their program are their HEMP grant and their New Farmers Academy class. It meets over the course of seven months on campus in the Pavilion Agricultural Research and Education Center to teach farmers how to grow profitable plants. But the college goes a step further to assure that the local residents get a piece of the green pie, and is earnestly investing in being a leader in the research and analytical work needed to be done on cannabis.
“Hemp is being grown just about everywhere in the country, but the growers don’t really have a research base,” says Dr. Bullock. “So what we’re doing is taking a leadership role in trying to establish a base for research. In the Farmers Academy we take farmers through an intensive training on everything from nutrients to the whole shebang. We have started a program here [at TSU] because we saw that no one else was interested because of the stigma of cannabis’ illegality. Because we were a state institution of research, we are except. It gave us room to work on the medicinal cannabis plant.”
The institution is earnestly investing in being a leader in cannabis research and analytical work.
Looking Towards The Future
On March 13, students were officially permitted to leave campus and finish their semester online. In a statement delivered shortly after, the University announced that employees would also be transitioning to remote work until further notice. Despite all of these obstacles, TSU is planning on moving forward with reopening in the Fall, in keeping with the Tennessee State Department of Health’s guidelines.
“Because we’ve taken the leadership in the state of Tennessee from a [hemp] research standpoint we have seen what started out as 400 folks registered [in the program] jump to over 3400 now registered. it is imperative that we keep classes going and keep research moving forward,” says Bullock.
The rapid growth experienced by the department is a testament to the work being done. Although rebuilding efforts after the tornado were slowed as a result of the pandemic, students and faculty are eager to return to campus to continue carrying out their research.