Outdoor cannabis farming gains toehold in Berkshires

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SHEFFIELD — State regulations and high startup costs make it hard for small farmers to break into the fast-growing cannabis industry. But partnerships like that between Theory Wellness in Great Barrington and longtime leafy greens grower Ted Dobson might be the future of outdoor growing.

On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission granted Theory Wellness approval to begin outdoor cannabis cultivation. Dobson, of Equinox Farm in Sheffield, expects to have his first organic cannabis crops in the ground this week.

"I've done an awful lot, actually," Dobson said of prepping the 2-acre farm on Bow Wow Road. "Given that this license has been a long time coming it has given me plenty of opportunity to turn what was once a wet field into an orchard-ready cannabis plot."

Theory Wellness is one of the first retail facilities in the state to get an outdoor cultivation license. Nova Farms, also in Sheffield, got its state approval at the end of May and has 3,600 plants in the ground.

"Ted is someone who is incredibly skilled with cultivation. He has so much experience with organically grown greens," said Thomas Winstanley, a spokesman for Theory Wellness, which partnered with Dobson.

Even as the end of the outdoor cannabis growing season nears locally, Dobson expects to test 30 varieties of cannabis this year. Over the next few years, the partners will narrow the strains that can do the best, given fickle New England weather.

The plants are in full flower between mid-September and October, when days are short of light and wet, Dobson said.

"One of the biggest challenges is mildew and mold at the end of the season," Dobson said. Still, he said, "people have been growing cannabis outdoors for centuries. There are plenty of mold- and mildew- [resistant] varieties to be grown and rediscovered over the years."

On its own

Nova didn't partner with a local farm, but instead opened its own 90-acre outdoor cultivation area on Kellogg Road. Since the beginning of June, farmers — five or six of them from Berkshire County — have planted about 20 strains of cannabis.

Chief Operating Officer Blair Fish expects that about 30 percent of the product sold at the company's Framingham and Attleboro retail shops will come from the Sheffield farm. The rest will come from other cultivators. Nova is exploring opening a retail outlet in Berkshire County, with properties in Great Barrington and Lee under consideration.

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"I think what's important is our philosophy; we could just stuff our shelves with our own stuff, but that's not our strategy at all," Fish said. "But we're also going to be wholesaling a lot of our product out to other dispensaries."

Winstanley said he can't predict what percentage of Theory Wellness products will end up being grown on the Sheffield land. But whatever is grown will be used for extracts or oils — and not be sold as flower.

"There's no way that there isn't going to be life in those flowers — there's always going to be a touch of spores," Dobson said of cannabis grown outdoors. "I'm certain that everything that's usable on the farm is going to be sold at Theory Wellness. They need this production."

Nova, too, will get most of its cannabis flowers elsewhere.

"It's more about when a consumer is looking for a retail bud, they're looking for a certain bud, and smell and feel," Fish said. The flower that most consumers want is better achieved through indoor growing, he said.

"Most of our crop, about 80 percent, will be for concentrates, which will be for vape cards or edibles," he said. "Our crop is growing tremendously well."

At 'forefront'

Dobson thinks that Equinox and Theory Wellness are at the forefront of a movement that can be replicated statewide. Not only does the partnership open a door for farmers, but outdoor growing also is a more sustainable, energy-efficient production method that can save cannabis companies money.

"It's a partnership that's rare today but makes a lot of sense, and our hope is that it can serve as a model for other farmers in Massachusetts," Brandon Pollock, CEO of Theory Wellness, said in a statement. "We are extremely concerned with the environmental impact of indoor cultivation; thus, outdoor cultivation is an opportunity to take a more sustainable approach and reduce our company's overall carbon footprint."

Pollock said his company was eager to work with Dobson, who he said "knows organic cultivation better than most."

Dobson called this an exciting time to be involved in the cannabis business. "Rarely does someone get to be a part of something that's starting from the ground floor. There is a lot of money to be made, and a lot of money to be lost."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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