TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — With the spring arriving, a new industry is being planted in New York. On April 14, the state released the first set of licenses allowing farmers to grow cannabis fit for adult-use recreation.
Of the initial 52 licenses, two of them have gone to farms in the Ithaca-area: Enfield Glen Hopyard, in Tompkins County; and Main Street Farms, which is located in Cortland and has had a long established presence at the Ithaca Farmers Market. New York State is expected to announce another 50 licenses in the coming weeks.
The licenses were given to farms in New York that had already built a business around growing hemp for cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD, which became legal to farm on a federal level in 2018. CBD has been advertised and widely adopted as an over-the-counter remedy for relieving anxiety, depression, and soothing aching muscles in forms ranging from salves, tinctures, oils and even infused bed pillows. CBD does not come with the “high” associated with cannabis, which is caused by another compound, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
New York farmers will be limited to selling their new crops to state-licensed dispensaries, which are also limited to buying THC cannabis from state farmers. Cannabis with a THC content is still federally illegal and considered a Schedule 1 drug by the DEA.
Farmers that have received the state license will also be required to fulfill a social equity mentorship with people who have received cannabis-related convictions, which are now eligible for expungement in New York State. Details of the program are yet to be seen but, essentially, it will give people who suffered as a result of now moot cannabis offenses an opportunity to shadow and train with cannabis farmers in order to start their own operations.
Allan Gandelman is a co-owner of Main Street Farms with Bob Bonagura, which began as an organic vegetable farm but diversified into growing CBD hemp in 2018. The farm is now the base block for a vertically-integrated cannabis company, New York Hemp Oil, which Gandelman co-owns with Karli Miller-Hornick.
These initial licenses limit farmers to growing just an acre of THC cannabis, which Gandelman thinks is the right move.
“As a farmer and president of the New York’s largest cannabis association, I think, I generally agree that the start out this way is good, because we can always increase, but you can never go back,” said Gandelman.
Few have had a better perch for understanding the growth of New York State’s cannabis industries than Gandelman, who is also the President of the New York State Cannabis Growers & Processors Association. But Gandelman characterizes his farms as a small one — only growing between 30 to 40 acres — and believes that as the cannabis industry grows in New York, that state government should protect this budding sector from the pressures of overregulation and competition from “Walmart” and “Amazon” style “big weed” businesses, which undercut smaller competitors on price to squash competition.
The initial acreage limit, Gandelman says, should keep New York State from facing the issue of oversupply, which has caused THC cannabis farms in states like California to face dangerously low prices — a trajectory that farmers across the U.S. all-too-often end up struggling against.
The national market for CBD cannabis followed that path, perpetuating a harsh streak in business for Enfield Glen Hopyard owner, Jason, who said he would prefer to not have his last name publicized.
Jason began farming hops in 2016, when the crop was “the talk of the town and a hopeful emerging market in New York […] Unfortunately, hops never shaped up in New York. It’s really difficult to compete with the Pacific Northwest.”
In 2018 Enfield Glen Hopyard split from its name and dove headfirst into growing CBD hemp, but an oversaturated national market created financial troubles for the farm. Then came the pandemic; the general economic upheaval and supply chain imbalance of the COVID-19 pandemic just added salt to the wound.
Jason said, “Most [hemp] farms I know, in 2020 and 2021 had to compost, burn, or till in their crops because there was just no market for it.”
With a cannabis license in hand, Jason is feeling optimistic, and thinks the state has chosen some smart policies to shepard farmers into a level playing field.
“[CBD] was a complete bloodbath. A lot of a lot of farms really suffered through hemp, and any farms that have now received this [THC] license coming from hemp, you know, it’s really absolutely a much needed life saver,” said Jason.
One missing piece of the puzzle for New York’s new hemp farms are the dispensaries they will be selling to. While grower licenses have been doled out, licenses for the only potential buyers have yet emerged.
“We have a chicken and egg situation,” said Gandelman.
Permitting the farmers earlier than the dispensaries will enable those storefronts to be stocked when they open their doors, but it runs the risk of leaving growers high and dry if the legislation hits a snag in Albany.
That potentiality is on Gandelman and Jason’s mind, but so is the day when recreational THC cannabis might become federally legal, and in effect remove the insulation that will allow a steady growth of New York’s agricultural business.
Jason said that he hopes that if and when that day comes, the state would take some regulatory precaution to protect businesses like his which would end up being squeezed by the likes of farms in California’s Emerald Triangle, where the drier climate is more favorable to cultivating cannabis as opposed to New York’s remarkably wet one.
But with the growing season beginning, Main Street Farms and Enfield Glen Hopyard are going to be applying the experience and practices they dialed-in on CBD Cannabis, and getting a new batch of crops in that ground that will, perhaps, help alleviate any short-term stress.
“With the right varieties and the right methods in place, we can grow the best cannabis in the country, maybe,” said Jason.