New York’s first legal marijuana crop sprouts under the sun

CLIFTON PARK, NY (AP) — New York’s recreational marijuana market is literally starting to sprout, with thin-leafed plants reaching for the sun on farms across the state.

In another move, New York gave 203 hemp growers shot at growing marijuana for the first time intended for legal sale, which could begin by the end of the year. Large indoor growers are expected to join later.

But for now, the field is clear for growers like Frank Popolizio of Homestead Farms and Ranch, where a small crew north of Albany dug shallow holes for seedlings earlier this month before packing them in by hand.

“It’s an opportunity, there will clearly be a demand for it,” Popolizio said during a planting break. “And hopefully it will benefit the farmers. It has been a long time since there has been a real cash crop.”

Popolizio manages a half-acre plot that will grow more than 1,000 plants, surrounded by a high electric fence. He and other “conditional growers” licensees can grow up to an acre of marijuana outdoors. They can grow all or part of their crop in greenhouses, albeit in smaller areas, and use limited lighting.

The license is valid for two years and allows holders to distribute cannabis flower products to retail pharmacies.

The edge for hemp growers is an unusual way to kick-start a marijuana market. Heather Trela, a marijuana policy expert at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, said states initially rely on their existing medical growers. New Jersey, for example, start sales this year with cannabis grown indoors and sold by companies involved in the medical marijuana market.

But New York’s move is a potential lifeline for farmers growing their crops for CDB amid a price drop. They have a chance to make a lot more money growing what is essentially the same plant, but with a higher level of THC – the substance that makes people feel high. Popolizio sees it as his “next logical step”.

A lifelong athlete, Popolizio seems like an unlikely cannabis farmer. He’s never popped a joint or chewed an edible before. But the amateur wrestling coach and promoter added cannabis to the mix at Homestead, along with beef, turkey and chicken. And he’s beginning to appreciate the potential benefits of cannabis for adults.

“I’m open-minded and I’ve come to understand that there is value,” he said.

The inclusion of smaller farmers also helps the state fulfill its mandate to create an economically and demographically diverse marijuana industry. Likewise, the first licenses to sell recreational marijuana in New York will go to people with marijuana-related beliefs or their relatives.

“There’s a market we’re building for small players, for big players, for medium-sized players, for family businesses and also for large companies,” said Chris Alexander, executive director of the state’s Office of Cannabis Management.

The first wave growers are expected to produce several hundred thousand pounds of product this year. That would be a fraction of projected demand in New York, which could eventually exceed a million pounds a year. But state regulators say their launch plan is to balance supply and demand, expanding cultivation as more pharmacies open.

“We think it will be enough to deliver that initial supply to our pharmacy locations that we are commissioning,” said Alexander.

Statewide, the vast majority of cannabis grown outdoors and in greenhouses is expected to be processed for products such as edibles and vapes, with the rest sold as smokeable flour, said Allan Gandelman, president of New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association.

Cannabis grown outdoors can often have lower THC levels than plants grown indoors under lighting. That makes it less attractive to some consumers, while others appreciate its nuanced characteristics, compared to tomatoes from the garden or a complex glass of wine.

“It’s called sun-grown marijuana,” says grower Moke Mokotoff of Claverack Creek Farm in the Hudson Valley. “And many aficionados like the way it smokes better.”

Growing cannabis under the sun with sustainable practices also requires much less energy than indoor growing that consumes a lot of electricity. Bridge West Consulting CEO Ari Hoffnung said this could translate into lower prices.

Aside from pests and inclement weather, the threat of theft is a major challenge when growing weed outdoors. Homestead’s half acre is not only surrounded by an electric fence, but it also has motion detectors and other security features.

About an hour south, Mokotoff is taking similar safety precautions and plans to ramp them up just before harvest, when the plants’ THC levels will be at their highest.

“We plan to put people to sleep in the field,” Mokotoff said.

The turbo boost in production is expected to come from indoor growers, especially those that already produce medicinal marijuana. As the regulations are still pending, Alexander expects more licenses to be offered early next year.

Major players in the industry are already poised to take advantage of a vast market.

Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries is building an 18,210-square-foot cultivation and manufacturing facility on the site of a former prison north of New York City. The Warwick plant is expected to be operational next year, producing a wide range of Green Thumb products.

The company sells its brands in 15 states and owns a medical cannabis company in New York.

“New Yorkers have seen the industry thrive from the sidelines,” said CEO Ben Kovler, “and have high hopes for the upcoming adult-use market.”

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