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To farmers, cannabis could mean much bigger bucks than tomatoes

Ted Dobson and other small farmers like him are hoping to be growers for Massachusetts’ recreational marijuana program. Do they stand a chance?

Ted Dobson walks a field on his farm in Sheffield that he hopes will someday be filled with marijuana plants.

joanna chattman for the boston globe

Ted Dobson walks a field on his farm in Sheffield that he hopes will someday be filled with marijuana plants.

The brisk February wind tousling his brown curly hair, Ted Dobson stands in the middle of his 15-acre Equinox Farm in Sheffield. This is where he’s made a name for himself as one of the first organic farmers in Western Massachusetts and a pioneer in the trendy salad greens business, where he cultivates the mesclun, mustard, and Swiss chard that end up at big-name restaurants in Boston and New York. This is where, on a nice summer’s day when the farm is pulsing with energy, he says to himself: “This is your life, man. Good plan.” This is also where an unusually rainy month or excessively dry summer can mean the loss of tens of thousands of dollars in sales.

And this is where he aims to add a new crop to his rotation: cannabis. “I want to diversify,” he says with a thoughtful drawl that belies his New Jersey roots. “This is just another green I want in the mix.”

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Now, with Massachusetts about to make recreational marijuana a reality, he’s ready to take that leap. Dobson hopes to be among the first agricultural cannabis growers in the state. “People who voted for legalized marijuana should have the choice of smoking good, healthy, outdoor-grown weed,” he says.

Currently, every ounce of medical marijuana sold in the state is grown under lights in windowless industrial spaces. This system consumes massive amounts of electricity and is more costly than cultivating marijuana outdoors. Traditional farmers who want to enter the medical marijuana business face huge bureaucratic, legal, and financial obstacles, and they fear that many of those same hurdles will become part of the state’s recreational program when it launches next year.

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Worse still, the nascent medical marijuana industry, thanks to state rules, is dominated by a small number of well-financed companies. AmeriCann, a publicly traded Denver corporation, plans to build a million-square-foot growing facility in Freetown, near Fall River. When completed, it will be one of the largest of its kind in the country. And these existing companies will likely get first crack at recreational marijuana licenses. According to the ballot language, new cultivation operators like Dobson will have to wait a full two years after the program starts to apply for a license.

Normally thoughtful and serene, Dobson becomes infuriated when he thinks of corporations monopolizing the industry. “That’s not a fair market,” he fumes. “And most of these people are not horticulturists, not farmers; they’re just deep-pocketed folks who saw there was money to be made.”

Massachusetts is one of the most densely populated states in the country, but it’s also known for its vibrant farm stands, picturesque small farms, and a growing agritourism industry. Surprisingly, for a state with a reputation for high-tech industry it’s also one of the only states in the country that has seen an increase in the number of farms in recent years. “What farmers in Massachusetts have realized is they have to diversify,” says Brad Mitchell, deputy executive director of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation. “For them, growing a high-value crop [like marijuana] would be great.” He adds, “There are certainly some folks who would look to this to save the farm.”  

Dobson at Equinox Farm, which supplies salad greens to the restaurant industry

Joanna chattman for the Boston Globe

Dobson at Equinox Farm, which supplies salad greens to the restaurant industry.

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As pot loses its stigma and even historically conservative farm bureaus warm to marijuana, farmers are realizing it could be part of a productive crop rotation. “It’s always good to have a couple of high-value, labor- intensive cash crops,” says Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, a statewide association of cannabis growers. “And cannabis is really a great fit for that role. It can fit into so many different farms and so many different climates and environments.”

Pot aficionados endlessly debate the relative merits of indoor- vs. outdoor-grown cannabis. Fans of the latter will cite health concerns and point out that outdoor plants benefit from natural pest control in the form of wasps and ladybugs. And Ted Dobson argues that with so many consumers preferring “high-quality, healthy food” grown under the sun in farmers’ fields, there is sure to be demand for weed raised that way.

Treating marijuana like any other crop can provide a financial boost to communities. After Colorado voters legalized cannabis in 2012, Pueblo County, a struggling rural region in the southern part of the state, allowed farmers to grow marijuana without complicated reviews or approvals. Now the county boasts a 36-acre field of cannabis behind high-security fencing, plus 21 other acres of marijuana being grown in greenhouses and indoor grow facilities. And no, says county commissioner Sal Pace, “absolutely the sky hasn’t fallen.” Instead, Pace says the county has enjoyed a boom — and collected enough tax revenue to award a scholarship to every Pueblo high school student who wishes to attend a local college.

And since growing marijuana in rural greenhouses and in open fields is far less costly than in high-tech, electricity-guzzling grow rooms on commercial or industrial real estate, the end product is cheaper. It’s why, as Colorado cannabis companies have moved their production facilities to Pueblo, statewide marijuana prices have dropped precipitously. While lower cannabis prices could end up hurting growers, marijuana, even at sharply discounted prices, could still prove a valuable addition to farmers’ fields. According to Allen, a pound of high-quality cannabis currently fetches $1,000 or more wholesale, compared with a going rate of less than a dollar for tomatoes.

24freetown - A rendering of a 1 million-square-foot marijuana greenhouse and processing center AmeriCann Inc. hopes to build in Freetown. (AmeriCann Inc.)

AmeriCann

A rendering of a 1-million-square-foot marijuana greenhouse and processing center that AmeriCann Inc. hopes to build in Freetown, Massachusetts.

Though Massachusetts legalized medical marijuana in 2012, there is still no legal commercial medical cannabis being grown in the Commonwealth in traditional greenhouses or on agricultural land. That’s likely because most farmers can’t overcome the medical marijuana program’s high barriers to entry: more than $30,000 in licensing fees and proof that they have another quarter million in the bank. Plus, state medical marijuana businesses are required to be vertically integrated (so it’s easier to track their cannabis from seed to sale), meaning that farmers must also own a dispensary. Lastly, all commercial marijuana cultivation must take place in “locked, limited access areas,” state rules say. So far, everyone has taken that definition to mean grow rooms, since they are the easiest way to safeguard the valuable plants. “A grower could use a greenhouse, but a chain-link fence is questionable,” says Peter Bernard, president of the Massachusetts Grower Advocacy Council, a lobbying group. “Technically it’s legal, but the police would likely come after you.”

Massachusetts is also one of only 19 states in which farmers are not allowed to cultivate hemp, a cannabis variety that is used for various industrial purposes as well as to make cannabidiol oil, a lucrative non-psychoactive product that is believed to have medical benefits. Franklin farmer Linda Noel says that between the hemp ban and the stringent medical marijuana regulations, there’s no way she can achieve her goal of growing either hemp or cannabis on her tomato farm and using it to produce low-THC medical marijuana oil. Noel has a personal stake in the matter: She uses medical cannabis to ease the pain of her autoimmune disease. But she also believes growing hemp or marijuana could help keep her operation afloat. “To me, it’s the difference between my farm succeeding and my farm becoming a housing development,” she says.

Farmers like Linda Noel and Ted Dobson hope they’ll have more options once the state launches its recreational cannabis industry next year. Massachusetts’s recreational marijuana legalization initiative didn’t include as many barriers to entry as its existing medical marijuana law, and the ballot initiative specified that statewide rules on the matter “shall not prohibit the cultivation of marijuana outdoors or in greenhouses.” But cannabis farmers would still need to make sure their land is properly zoned for such an enterprise — an undertaking that recently became much more difficult.

In Massachusetts, “right to farm” laws exempted agricultural activities from local zoning restrictions. In other words, growing crops — including, presumably, legal marijuana — didn’t require a special permit. But that changed after Jeffrey Randall, a fourth-generation farmer, proposed a medical marijuana facility on his cranberry farm in Plympton last year. While two of the town’s three selectmen at first supported his plan, a vocal contingent of Randall’s neighbors opposed it. That led the town’s state legislators, Representative Thomas Calter and Senator Michael Brady, to sponsor a bill that excluded marijuana from Massachusetts’s right-to-farm laws. Lawmakers passed a version of that right-to-farm exclusion late last year as part of a bill to delay by six months the implementation of the recreational marijuana program.

“That bill was to support the residents in Plympton who don’t want this grown in their backyard,” says Brady. “We didn’t want to hurt any dispensaries or anything.”

But Randall claims the bill sunk his plan to grow cannabis on his agricultural land. He hasn’t brought up his proposal to his selectmen again since the legislation’s passage and is instead looking for commercial real estate on which to run a grow facility. That’s because he says the legislation makes it difficult, if not impossible, to grow marijuana on any Massachusetts farm. “They basically disallowed it in any place but commercial and industrial zones,” he says. “Basically this stops any agriculturalist from entering this industry.”

In this Oct. 10, 2016 photo, the sun rises over Los Suenos Farms, America's largest legal open air marijuana farm, in Avondale, southern Colo. The harvest occurs at a time when marijuana is coming back into the spotlight in the city and county of Pueblo, where Avondale is located. If two ballot measures are approved on Nov. 8, they could impact growers like Los Suenos. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Brennan Linsley/associated press

Los Suenos Farms in Avondale, Colorado, is America’s largest legal open air marijuana farm.

In spite of this setback, efforts are under way to make the state more pot-farmer friendly. Representatives of the Massachusetts Grower Advocacy Council and MassCann are busy lobbying state lawmakers to allow industrial hemp to be grown in pilot research and agricultural programs and to make it easier for prospective growers to get started in the industry. The Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation has asked that a farmer be included on the state’s new Cannabis Control Commission. And while the legislature’s Committee on Marijuana Policy is currently considering how to revamp and implement the state’s new laws, other lawmakers have already come up with proposals of their own. A bill filed in January by Representative Denise Provost of Somerville would do away with the state’s marijuana exclusion from the right-to-farm laws and place all commercial cannabis cultivation under the department of agriculture. It would even allow weed to be sold at farm stands. “I have a tiny little urban district, and we don’t have any farmland here,” she says. “But we love our farmers markets, and many people here believe in buying local.” She reasons the same attitude should extend to how people buy their weed.

Dobson isn’t sitting around and waiting to see if Provost is successful. He’s tackling the challenge with the same fervor that helped him convince people to buy his funny-looking lettuce 30 years ago. A former Sheffield selectman, Dobson is using his political skills to try to persuade the town administrator to back his plan to grow marijuana. And he recently met with Senator Patricia Jehlen, cochair of the Committee on Marijuana Policy, to discuss amending state law to allow farmers like him to grow both medical and recreational marijuana. “He seems like the kind of entrepreneur and small farmer that Massachusetts is really proud of,” says Jehlen. “This is a new market, and we would like to see him be able to compete in that market.”

Dobson was cautioned for years that he’d eventually be pushed out of the salad business by big organic farming entities, and yet he still sells a half million dollars’ worth of greens a year. He figures the artisanal approach he uses for his mesclun will also work for marijuana. “It’s like a small dairy farmer with really great cheese,” he says.

As the sun slips from behind the clouds on this windy February day, Dobson walks to a far corner of his farm, a long way from the road and blocked from view by his greenhouses. This is where it would be: an acre of sun-grown marijuana plants, tall as small trees. Cured and broken down by hand in a trim house he’d build nearby, Equinox Farm-grown cannabis would be sold to specially selected dispensary and recreational-shop partners or delivered directly to consumers through community supported agriculture arrangements. Or maybe tourists would come, walk through the fields, get a chance to sample the product, and buy a selection, just like they do at the popular breweries and distilleries down the road.

“Can you see it?” asks Dobson, his voice filled with excitement. He certainly can.

Joel Warner, a former International Business Times staff writer focused on the marijuana industry, is based in Colorado. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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