Small farmers want state's promise kept on craft cannabis
"I just see this as another crop, another farm crop," said Sharon Daldoss-Bergeron, co-owner of Gray Raven Farm on Route 7.
"With a bigger price tag on it," adds her husband, Dan Bergeron.
Money isn't something that comes easy on Massachusetts farms.
Their numbers might be small, and challenges large, but growers say they are intent on carving out their fair share of what's expected to be a large and lucrative market.
When the Legislature passed the state's recreational cannabis law last summer, after voter approval in November 2016, lawmakers included provisions designed to let small growers win production licenses this spring.
To temper high fees, the law allows farmers to band together in cooperatives, sharing overhead and startup costs. Last fall, the new Cannabis Control Commission hustled to turn the law into policy in time for sales to begin July 1.
This week, the commission takes to the road, starting in Pittsfield, to see what stakeholders think of draft rules it released at year's end. A series of 10 public hearings opens at 8:30 a.m. Monday at Berkshire Community College.
While the draft rules allow for the licensing of co-ops, prospective growers like Ezra Marcus, a University of Massachusetts student, remain concerned. They say they will attend the hearings to recommend changes they hope will improve the odds for small players who face competition from well-funded industrial-scale producers operating indoor facilities.
Still, Marcus said he believes small growers can do well, in part because — as simple as it sounds — they understand plants.
"Cannabis and hemp are perfect crops for small farmers because of the attention and care they require," said Marcus, one of several people working with the Farm Bug Cooperative in Somerville to advance the interests of small-scale farmers.
Then again, the challenges are real. Daylight is limited at the state's latitude; timing on cultivation, as well as efforts to combat mildew and mold, will greatly affect harvests.
In the marketplace, success might depend, Marcus said, on finding buyers who want to back the little guys of the burgeoning business.
"We have to see whether there will be a demand for organic, soil-grown cannabis. I think there is, but we need to hear from more people who feel strongly about this," Marcus said. "If small farmers can [come] together to develop a distinctive product, then we can gain a lasting foothold in the industry."
Steven J. Hoffman, the cannabis panel's chairman, said he takes seriously the Legislature's wish to keep a door open to small farms. The early regulations his panel released in December allow farmers to unite under a cooperative banner.
"The goal is explicit and clear," Hoffman said of removing barriers for small growers. "There's a specific way to enable and allow for co-ops. Whether we've done a good enough job will be determined."
After the hearings, the commission will have one month to digest what members heard and to adjust regulations. Those rules must be submitted to the secretary of state by March 9, in time to be approved March 15.
While public comment ends Feb. 15, people can continue to monitor the commission's work. The panel will hold three days of public meetings in Boston the week of Feb. 26. The sessions will be streamed online.
Critiques of rules
Lawrence Davis-Hollander, a Berkshire County botanist interested in cultivating cannabis with a partner, grower Ted Dobson of Sheffield, feels that while the state will approve outdoor growing, the panel should have done more to foster participation by small farms.
He questions whether rule-making so far has embraced the "spirit" of the cannabis law.
"Farmers have continued to be left out," he said.
To get into the business, farms must have access to capital to cover what he characterized as high costs associated with the regulations, such as a requirement for hot and cold running water and a septic system.
"While lucrative, it's not that lucrative," Davis-Hollander said of cannabis production. "If you're too small a scale, and you're starting from scratch, it would take quite a while to pay all that back. We believe that where there's a will, there's a way, but each day it seems to be potentially costing more money."
Farmers say they plan to raise questions at the hearings about the makeup of the co-ops. They also feel insurance and security requirements would be onerous.
Michael Lopario of Easthampton, a 22-year-old UMass student who is helping rally farmers to speak at the hearings, said that while he understands the need for security, the cost of providing it can be "excessive" for small farms.
He and others are also critical of a draft regulation that would limit cooperatives to six member farms. The rule, they fear, creates an incentive to gather the largest-possible farms as members, shouldering out small operations that might most benefit from access to the market.
Lopario hopes to team up with a Hadley landowner to grow in that community, one of the most celebrated farming towns in Massachusetts. His partner has access to family land.
"We want to revitalize the culture families have been involved with for generation after generation," Lopario said. "I sort of see cannabis as the last frontier for the organic farmer who is just getting by."
He's not alone on that. The Northeast Organic Farming Association and the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council teamed up for a December workshop that advised more than 100 growers on ways to get into the new market.
One speaker Dec. 12 said that, while most consumers might opt for mass-produced cannabis, others will prefer craft products, just as many favor craft beer. Kamani Jefferson and Sonia Espinosa, co-founders of the consumer group, said farmers must speak up as the state's rules are made final.
Eric Schwartz, co-founder of the Farm Bug Cooperative, is also alarmed by the limit on the number of farms that can participate under the umbrella of any one cooperative.
Some farmers are proposing that co-ops be governed by the size of area under cultivation, rather than number of growers taking part. That would enable more to participate, spreading costs more widely.
"This market needs to be as encouraging to farmers as it can be," said Schwartz, who testified before lawmakers last April and started his advocacy group soon after. "At the end of the day, big business is going to get in. The earlier the small farmer can get in, the better.
"Farmers have the odds stacked up against them, but we're going to make a lot of noise in the February hearings," he said.
Hoffman, the cannabis panel leader, said he expected to hear comments about security rules, but declined to say how he thinks regulations might be adjusted.
"We'll get, I hope, to a good resolution," he said.
A Lanesborough dream
Hoffman will be listening when Dan Bergeron, the Lanesborough farmer, comes to the microphone Monday at BCC.
In an interview at his Lanesborough farmstand, Bergeron said he sees cannabis production as a way to get up and over the challenge of making ends meet.
He and his wife, Sharon, moved to the farm last February. Their first year was a bust, because of cultivation problems. Bergeron plans to retire soon from a job at the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction, where he takes care of heating and air-conditioning systems.
That full-time work left him unable to tend as closely as needed to last season's crops.
"I couldn't keep my finger on the heartbeat in the fields," he said.
Gray Raven Farm's main current product is soap and lotions made from goat milk. The couple tends a herd of 10 goats.
But like all traditional New England farms, Gray Raven looks for revenue where it can, including from honey (straight from its eight hives), a full line of vegetables and an acre of blueberry bushes. Its operation, at 551 North Main St., is the former home of the Bradley farm.
The Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation has been urging members to diversify for years.
Cannabis is a bit of a leap for this farm, since neither Bergeron nor his wife have experience growing it. But they have five greenhouses — and a wish to make their operation sustainable financially.
Bergeron, who has been consulting with Farm Bug Cooperative, shares concerns expressed by small farmers that big players have the edge on production.
"That could lead to big aggie corporations coming in and drowning out the local farmer," he said. "It's kind of hard for a farmer to get through the red tape. Out here in Berkshire County, I'm afraid we might get lost in the shuffle."
Daldoss-Bergeron, a herbalist, said she sees cannabis as a wellness product. Some of her lotions, displayed in tidy rows along the farmstand's front wall, are already infused with CBD, the nonpsychotropic element of cannabis believed to have therapeutic benefits.
"We're going to learn as we go," Bergeron said. "Follow the rules and regulations and do the best that we can, to give us a chance here. We're going to put all our eggs into this basket. Whether that's the smartest thing to do, time will tell."
"It's something I've never grown," he said of cannabis. "But I haven't grown rutabaga either."
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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