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Home Life For These New York Farmers, Harvest Time Means High Times

For These New York Farmers, Harvest Time Means High Times

by Staff
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In fields from Sag Harbor to Ithaca, a new crop ripened this fall: cannabis plants grown for recreational marijuana.

It was a longtime cash crop in the United States, as American as apple pie.

Cannabis sativa fields stretched from New England to Virginia even before the Revolutionary War, when the crop’s main product, hemp, was used in the production of rope, sails, paper and clothing.

George Washington grew it on his plantation. Thomas Jefferson came up with new ways of threshing the fibrous, fast-growing plant. Through the 19th century, the psychoactive drug derived from some varieties of the plant was often used in medicines and cure-alls that claimed to alleviate various conditions including rheumatism and melancholia.

The growing of cannabis was all but prohibited in the United States after 1937, when Congress, in response to rising anti-marijuana sentiment, passed the Marijuana Tax Act in an effort to regulate varieties of the plant containing high levels of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. It was the start of an effective ban that has eased in recent years, as a result of gradual decriminalization, but is only now beginning to lift fully in many states.

Across New York, from Sag Harbor to Ithaca, farmers have lately been harvesting the first legal cannabis crop grown for recreational use in many decades. Some of them had been preparing for this moment even before March 2021, when New York became the 16th state to legalize recreational marijuana for people 21 and older. Shortly after the law passed, the state began the process of issuing 261 conditional licenses to farmers who qualified, according to the Office of Cannabis Management, which regulates the plant in New York.

During this year’s harvest, the operators of two New York farms took some time away from their busiest season to discuss the pleasures and challenges of a plant that is not always so easy to grow in their part of the world.

Aswad Sallie, who goes by the name King, and Jasmine Burems are among the small-scale farmers trying to make a go of it in this new industry. Together they run Claudine Farm Resort, an eight-and-a-half-acre spread in Copake, a small town in Columbia County. They lease the property.

Ms. Burems, 37, and Mr. Sallie, 46, began dating each other in 2014 after meeting at a hot yoga studio in Brooklyn where he was an instructor. At the time, Ms. Burems was working as an herbalist, a jazz singer and a doula. About a year after they met, Ms. Burems was pregnant, and they decided to make a dramatic change: Leave behind their life in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and move to a farm in Columbia County.

The decision did not come out of nowhere. As a teenager, Mr. Sallie had been sent to live for a time at his grandfather’s farm near Cooperstown, N.Y. — to keep him out of trouble, he said — and he wanted the same kind of rural experience for his family.

“That first year,” Ms. Burems said, “we started with a pickax and a heavy rake and spool of cord to make our rows straight.”

They focused on squash, watermelons, herbs and flowers, among other crops. They also founded an advocacy group for Black farmers, the Institute of Afrofuturist Ecology, and took much of their fruits and vegetables to farmers’ markets in New York City.

“We sell them through a Black Food Sovereignty network, primarily in the city,” said Mr. Sallie, who worked for years as an actor and was a musician in the Black Rock Coalition. “We just sold about 300 pounds of our squash to the Afropunk festival in Brooklyn.”

Once they were established, they started growing cannabis plants to meet the demand brought on by the explosion of foods, tinctures and other products containing CBD, or cannabidiol, a nonintoxicating hemp derivative. Mr. Sallie and Ms. Burems saved enough to buy a tractor, which helped them with the hemp as well as the fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs that they have continued to cultivate.

Their latest crop included strains of the plant that are rich in THC — including Platinum Girl Scout Cookie, Tenzin Kush and G-13. These will indeed get you high. On an October afternoon, Mr. Sallie and Ms. Burems showed them off with pride.

“This is Blueberry Cupcake,” Mr. Sallie said, gesturing toward some fragrant plants growing beside a neat row of marigolds.

Nearby, he pointed out the G-13 plants with especially plump buds. Using a magnifying app on his phone, Mr. Sallie homed in on the flower’s minuscule, crystal-like trichomes, sprouting all along the bud like tiny mushrooms.

“They go from clear to cloudy to amber colored,” he said. “Amber is what you want. That’s where the medicine is happening.”

In late October, as the plants ripened, Mr. Sallie and Ms. Burems called in friends and relatives to help with the work of bringing in the crop. Many of the people who showed up had made the trip to Cloud Forest Farm before, to help with harvests during the CBD craze.

“They work with us as if they were like paid employees,” Ms. Burems said. “They put in real hardcore shifts.”

The farmers and their helpers went into the fields armed with specialized shears, called loppers, to untether the plants from the ground and strip them of their leaves. At dinner time, Mr. Sallie’s father barbecued spare ribs. Much of the work was done to a soundtrack of classic soul blasted from a portable, solar-powered stereo — Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Roy Ayers.

“We blast these plants with some great music and create a really infectious vibe,” Ms. Burems said. “Because we’ve got to motivate the people to have a good time with us and put some good energy into the work.”

Once the plants were out of the ground, the team loaded them into an old pickup truck, and Mr. Sallie drove them to a former cafe a short drive away, where they would be bucked and threshed.

After a period of drying, the plants will be tested. Anything grown to be consumed by New Yorkers has to pass muster with the Department of Agriculture and Markets, which inspects them for contaminants like mildew and heavy metals (flight paths over farms can be disastrous for crops). The THC-heavy plants will be cured for several weeks after drying, allowing the buds to mature to full potency. They will also be tested for their THC levels.

“I’m excited about the lab results because it’s the part that we can really geek out about,” Mr. Sallie said.

They won’t be able to take marijuana to market right away. Farmers across the state are waiting for the Office of Cannabis Management, or OCM, to finalize its rules and regulations concerning the sales of marijuana and to sift through the 900 applications from potential retailers.

In the first stage of the rollout, the office will license about 150 shops, said Damian Fagon, the chief equity officer of the OCM, which aims to protect small-scale farmers in New York from the potential influx of large companies supplying marijuana to dispensaries. He added that he hoped that the marijuana grown in the state for recreational use would be on shelves in the first quarter of 2023.

The OCM calculates that there is demand in New York State for three million to five million pounds of recreational marijuana annually. As of now, the licensed farms in the state can produce up to 700,000 pounds. “We could need anywhere between 1,500 to 2,000 dispensaries across the state to actually meet the demand for legal cannabis,” Mr. Fagon said.

Ms. Burems and Mr. Sallie are optimistic that they will be able to see some profit from their harvest. They have dreams of building a greenhouse and making Claudine Farm Resort into a weed-centric tourist destination.

“We’re waiting for the right partner to come around with some capital and build out our fuller vision, because we are accessing just a fraction of the opportunity,” Mr. Sallie said.

“Ideally, we’d like to purchase a new farm, build a wellness center and spa,” Ms. Burems said. “You could lie out in a hammock and read a book, and someone walks by with a platter of various strains for you to try.”

Ninety miles northwest of their farm, in Argyle, a town of about 3,500 residents in Washington County, Seth Jacobs was in the middle of harvesting his first cannabis crop meant for recreational marijuana.

For Mr. Jacobs, 65, the decriminalization has presented him with what he called “the opportunity of a lifetime.” For more than 30 years, he said, he has run his farm with his wife, Martha, and he relished the prospect of having a potentially profitable new crop.

“It came at a good time for our family,” he said. “Martha and I had reached the age where our physical limitations began to surpass our love of farming.” Their children, he added, are not interested in working as hard for the same modest returns. “The way out wasn’t clear,” he said. “This is an opportunity to farm smaller acreage and create some legacy wealth for the family.”

He and his wife came to Argyle in 1983, when they bought the 140 acres, 40 of them tillable, that made up Slack Hollow Farm. They wanted a different life for themselves after having grown up in the suburbs, he said.

“We both wanted to farm,” Mr. Jacobs said. “We also wanted to anchor and spend our lives in one place. I was the baby brother of hippies. The goal was to keep it simple, small and beautiful — give back to the land.”

They learned what they needed to know about agriculture with the help of their neighbors. Over the years, they have grown mainly organic vegetables and lettuces, which they sell to supermarkets and farmers’ markets in the area. When CBD was all the rage, they planted hemp. Now they are growing the stronger stuff — Sweet Cheese, Gorilla Glue, Sour Diesel.

“We looked for what would grow in the New York climate first and foremost, and for mold resistance, because we have a moist climate,” Mr. Jacobs said.

Dressed in a black cowboy hat, a denim shirt, cargo pants and Teva sandals, he sat in the 3,500-square-foot greenhouse on his farm and began removing leaves from harvested cannabis plants. On his right lay 14 sling bags — plastic-lined, 45-cubic-foot sacks, each brimming with 80 pounds of cannabis buds.

Like Mr. Sallie and Ms. Burems, Mr. Jacobs is waiting for the OCM to give the green light.

“They can’t onboard it into their system until the OCM has approved them to take possession of the product,” he said. “And so the whole thing has been plugged up, like our access to this investment money.”

The regulatory uncertainty is one of many challenges that come with the new crop.

“Cannabis is not for the fainthearted,” Mr. Jacobs said. “These days, whenever I get a sales call about a small business loan, I say: ‘You be careful. We’re in the cannabis business. I will take your money and you will be ruined.’ And they hang up really fast.”

His current worries have less to do with state rules and regulations than the crop itself. Much of what he grew this year is autoflower, an especially fast-grower used for CBD products that can go from seed to full-grown in 60 days. The more potent strains can take up to five months to become ripe.

On his farm, Mr. Jacobs stepped through the remaining, unplucked plants. The Sweet Cheese had flowered nicely, but the leaves were browning. When it comes to cannabis grown for its THC, the ultimate test is with the consumer. Which is why Mr. Jacobs has a dedicated team ready to sample what he has grown.

“We keep them trained,” he said with a smile. “We ride them hard.”

He added that he was lucky that he had made a deal with a processor willing to buy his bud before a single state-approved retail store had opened, but the risks remain.

“It’s not an easy space to work in,” he said. “However, as conditional license holders, it’s what we signed up for. A bunch of small farmers have been given an amazing opportunity to get in early in this market.”

He stepped back from his plants and surveyed his farm and the valley below. The trees had reached full color, a vibrant mix of oranges, their leaves rustling in a cool fall breeze.

“We wanted to live on the land, learn to farm and make a living doing it,” he said. “We had a real successful life, because we achieved exactly what we wanted.

And he went back to work.

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