Berkshire farm/pot dispensary alliance may be a harbinger of outdoor cultivation potential

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This story has been corrected to reflect that the Farm Bug Co-op is seeking a  state cannabis cooperative license, and not a microbusiness license. 

SHEFFIELD — Recreational marijuana might be legal in Massachusetts, but it hasn't come out of the shadows and into the light — daylight, that is.

But all that could change — and soon — right here in the Berkshires.

Ted Dobson, former owner of leafy-greens producer Equinox Farm in Sheffield, has partnered with Theory Wellness, a Great Barrington marijuana dispensary that has filed an application for outdoor cultivation. Theory Wellness, the name on the application, won a provisional cultivation license for Dobson's property this month.

The partnership could be a model that puts growing commercial marijuana within the reach of people who work the land.

"They certainly don't make it easy for a farmer to get involved — you need money, and quite a bit of it," Dobson said. "The money thing, that's not going to change for any farmer. If there's a rich farmer out there, I'd like to meet her or him."

While there are eight fully licensed marijuana cultivators in Massachusetts, none of them grows outside, and many of the owners are from out of state.

The Theory/Equinox application is one of three — two of which are in Sheffield — for outdoor cannabis cultivation in Massachusetts.

The team approach is a win-win, say Dobson and Theory Wellness CEO Brandon Pollock. Theory Wellness is leasing the land from Dobson, bought the startup equipment, and is paying for licensing and a host agreement. Dobson is a subcontractor for Theory and will work as a hands-on consultant once the cannabis plants hit the Sheffield dirt. The crop all goes to Theory.

When Massachusetts voters approved recreational marijuana in 2016, advocates talked about local farmers selling homegrown product to mom and pop dispensaries. This hasn't happened. The reasons are many, including a lack of funding on the part of everyday people, as well as local, state and federal laws that can prevent the little guy from breaking into the industry.

A dispensary-farmer partnership isn't going to work in every situation, Pollock says. Dobson will be growing in the Berkshires, an environment often associated with quality living and products. Being able to say that Theory is selling "Berkshire-grown" marijuana could be a draw for the dispensary that helps distinguish it from other pot retailers.

Dobson is going all-in on cannabis. He recently sold the Equinox Farm business to his daughter's longtime boyfriend, who leases 9 acres of the 15-acre farm and is about to sow his first crop of leafy greens.

Another 2 acres at Equinox, leased by Theory and protected by a new security fence, will be used to produce a future cannabis crop. Surveillance cameras will soon be installed to meet state marijuana-growing requirements.

Dobson said he is nervous about staking his future income on a crop he never has grown commercially, but the deal with Theory has him feeling confident enough to take the risk.

"I'm thinking, 'Don't count your chickens before they're hatched' — that's what's wracking my nerves. There's an awful lot of variables when you're growing a crop ... and making sure there's enough harvest to make a living," said Dobson, noting that leafy greens have a faster grow cycle than cannabis.

The deal Dobson and Theory worked out is a fairly traditional business pact, Pollock said, and has nothing to do with an equity program Theory Wellness announced this month with the aim of helping a disadvantaged marijuana entrepreneur pay for startup costs — up to $250,000 — and get through the regulatory process.

"We're proud, and we want to show what can be done outside," Pollock said. "We know farmers have a real tough time these days. This could be a model for other farmers as well."

First under the sun

Ground zero in the competition to open the state's first outdoor cannabis cultivation operation is Sheffield — a right-to-farm rural town with a rare, cultivator-friendly cannabis bylaw.

This month, the Cannabis Control Commission awarded its first two provisional licenses to applicants seeking to grow cannabis outside: Theory Wellness and Nova, an Attleboro-based company, both of which have plots in Sheffield. Only one other application has been filed for an outside cultivation license.

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This means that many small farmers are being left out of the new marijuana business, Dobson said.

And he is not alone in that view. At a March hearing in Springfield, Cannabis Control Commission members said they are working on policies that will give farmers and people who don't pull down six-figure salaries a shot at a new business.

Obstacles include local zoning regulations that don't allow marijuana in agricultural/residential areas, high upfront costs for applications and host agreements, investment in security and data-tracking equipment and finding someone willing to buy the finished crop.

"The entire process has been fraught and full of hurdles and unexpected forks," Dobson said. "Being the first in the state, I may have a shot at this only because I was approached by the right people at the right moment."

Finding money

Creating partnerships between farmers and retailers might be the only way for people with restricted incomes to become players in the cannabis industry, Dobson said. After all, the startup costs for an outside marijuana grow can equal a year's income for a farmer — and that doesn't include the thousands of dollars many municipalities require to provide an applicant with a state-mandated "host agreement."

On average, startup costs for an outside cannabis grow in Massachusetts are $50,000 to $60,000, said Erik Williams, a longtime marijuana consultant applying for a marijuana retail license in Lee.

Massachusetts farmers earn around $53,000 per year, according to the state Bureau of Labor Statistics, and banks are unlikely to make loans for marijuana cultivation — which is still considered illegal by the federal government.

Eric Schwartz, co-founder of the Farm Bug Co-Op, a planned marijuana coperative, said he is concerned that host agreements are keeping farmers out of the industry. Before the Cannabis Control Commission will accept an application, the applicant has to obtain a host agreement from the community stating that the municipality supports the business. Host agreements nearly always require a donation to the town. On average, marijuana entrepreneurs agree to donate $25,000 to $100,000 to secure the letter of support, though some communities charge as little as $5,000, according to a 700-page report on host agreements by the Cannabis Control Commission.

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"If the CCC and the state Legislature continue to throw up their hands at municipal discretion — what are we going to do to defend ourselves?" Schwartz asked during the commission hearing in Springfield. "There's not one cannabis co-op in Massachusetts. You need to get tough on municipal governments."

Even before the state accepted applications for marijuana licenses, officials foresaw trouble for farmers. But their attempts to handle the issue do not appear to have worked.

The commission created the microbusiness license with farmers in mind. This type of license allows farmers to create a cooperative-type business where people can pool their money to purchase security, data-tracking equipment and/or land for marijuana cultivation.

The microbusiness license has yet to attract much interest. There have been nine applications for such licenses.

Dobson said he doesn't do any farming by committee and he doesn't want to start.

Local obstacles

Another regulatory snag is that a farmer can have a partner and money — and still be locked out of the industry due to local zoning laws.

Using a guide provided by the CCC, many communities restricted cannabis cultivation activity to commercial and industrial areas — places where acres of active farmland aren't typically found.

While there are laws that protect a farmer's decision to grow what he or she wants on their land, that regulation doesn't extend to marijuana, even in a right-to-farm community. State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, has filed a bill, An Act Clarifying the Definition of Agriculture, to remove the exception and allow farmers to grow weed on their properties.

"The Senate needs to jump on this bill so that it gains more traction this legislative session. That means that voters in the Commonwealth that support cannabis as agriculture need to pick up the phone and call in your support to your senator's office," Farley-Bouvier said in a statement. "This is how we'll get more farmer participation in the cannabis industry."

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Farley-Bouvier's bill is being reviewed by the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy. The committee is considering more than 50 proposals, including individual bills filed by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, to expand farmers' rights to grow hemp.

Hinds said small-farm cannabis advocates should contact the chairs of the joint committee — Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Rep. David Rogers — and encourage them to remove barriers to cannabis agriculture.

"We're trying to impress upon the chairs that there's a growing season we want to get ahead of," Hinds said.

Dobson, who has been a marijuana advocate for years, saw how local laws stymied farmers, and dedicated himself to working with Sheffield officials to make sure his town shaped sensible cannabis bylaws that support farmers. Dobson attended every meeting he could over two years on the proposed marijuana overlay district, making sure town officials were aware of the impact the law could have on local agriculture.

It took Sheffield a while to put it together, but the town now has a comprehensive marijuana zoning overlay district that is welcoming to farmers. The town also is the only place in the state where outdoor grow applications have received any form of approval from the Cannabis Control Commission.

"I wanted them to think about this in an overall economic way," he says, "as an option for the town and certainly an option for this farmer and an opportunity for other farmers throughout the state."

Partnerships wanted

While farmers struggle to enter the marijuana industry, area sellers are having a hard time connecting to people who want to grow. After hearing about these missed connections, Peter Bernard, president of the Massachusetts Growers Advocacy Council, a Taunton pro-marijuana group, started a directory to connect growers with sellers.

"I am seeing small-scale folks looking for retailers to work with, and vice versa," Bernard said. "I've had retailers reach out to me looking for people to buy from recently. I have a decent list of suppliers right now."

Williams, the co-owner of Canna Provisions, is one of those retailers looking for pot farmers. Williams has a license for a dispensary in Lee, by the Massachusetts Turnpike interchange, that he plans to open in May.

Williams said he's willing to help local farmers get their licenses and reduce their risk by committing to purchasing their weed crops. He's working with one farmer in West Stockbridge and looking for four others. The farmer involved declined to comment, since his contract with Williams has yet to be signed.

"The single greatest risk is regulatory risk," Williams said. "So, we're trying to get farmers up and moving by being supportive throughout all the processes like filling out forms, security design, how to come up with that initial upfront cost and how to set up a tracking system."

Williams got his start in the cannabis industry in Colorado 10 years ago and has worked mostly as a consultant and advocate. He said he sees marijuana benefiting more than the local farming community.

Marijuana-infused products are gaining popularity. Talking about all the items he could sell, Williams sounds a bit like Julie Andrews singing "My Favorite Things" — bath bombs and soda, beef jerky and honey, shampoo and candles, shortbread and chutney.

To be successful, Williams said he plans to sell uniquely Berkshire items that come with stories about how they were made.

"These can all be Berkshire County products made with marijuana from the Berkshires," he said. "If we don't tell their stories and build it up all over the Berkshires — we have to do it now or we're out."

Williams said he is concerned about what will happen to the Massachusetts marijuana industry if small farmers aren't able to get into the business early.

"I don't want it to end up being 50 years from now and there are six or seven different kinds of weed," he said. "I don't want to wait 50 years to discover the craft cannabis movement."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini, 413-629-4621.


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