‘Grown in the Berkshires’: First outdoor cannabis growing facilities in the state planned for Sheffield
Sheffield — The Berkshires brand is a valuable asset. From cultural venues to agriculture to private schools to baking to distilling and bottled spring water, marketing our region to sell products has a long and storied history.
Soon, a highly lucrative product will be added to that list: marijuana grown legally and outdoors in the great sun and fresh air of the Berkshire Mountains. On April 4, the state Cannabis Control Commission granted provisional licenses to a pair of companies to grow marijuana on separate parcels in Sheffield.
Both hope to receive permanent licenses in the next few weeks, or in time to take advantage of this year’s growing season. In addition, a cannabis edibles manufacturer plans to open in an area off Stockbridge Road in Great Barrington. More on that later.
Theory Wellness, which opened its doors in 2017 in Great Barrington as Berkshire County’s first medical pot dispensary and earlier this year began selling the recreational variety, is partnering with organic farmer Ted Dobson to open an outdoor grow facility at Dobson’s Equinox Farm on Bow Wow Road. Click here to see the CCC’s decision on the provisional cultivation license.
“We’re very excited to have an organic outdoor process,” Brandon Pollock, Theory’s CEO, said in an interview. “Ted’s a 36-year organic farmer.”
Meanwhile, Nova Farms (formerly BCWC), a manufacturer headquartered in Attleboro, recently acquired a farm on Kellogg Road, part of which it plans to use to cultivate cannabis and related products for distribution to retailers. If all goes according to plan, the Nova and Theory operations will be the first fully licensed outdoor grow facilities in the state. Click here to see the CCC’s decision on Nova’s provisional cultivation license.
Contacted on Saturday, Dobson, a longtime cannabis enthusiast, was elated. “I think it’s a long time coming,” he said. “The plant has been stigmatized for decades.”
Even as Dobson has partnered with Theory, he has sold his popular salad greens business at Equinox to Peter Chapin, who will lease 8.5 of Dobson’s 15 acres to grow arugula, mesclun and other greens. Farming runs in Chapin’s family, as his mother, Jan Johnson, owns Mill River Farm in New Marlborough.
Dobson and Theory will cultivate the marijuana on 2 acres, all of which will be fenced in and equipped with the state-of-the-art security features required by the CCC, likely including video surveillance and alarms. Dobson credited a new zoning bylaw in Sheffield for facilitating the cannabis project.
“It’s a better product because if you’re growing indoors, you’re growing in an artificial environment,” Dobson explained. “The indoor product is mostly hydroponically … I’m a soil man. You’re getting something much healthier.”
Dobson quickly added that he means no disrespect to the indoor product, but that cannabis consumers would benefit from having the choice.
Pollock also noted that growing outdoors is “much less energy-intensive,” a factor that might compensate for the unpredictability of the weather and the relatively short growing season in Berkshire County.
“It’s never really been done legally on the East Coast,” Pollock said. “We can’t control the weather — indoors, we can control everything — so there is more risk of the elements.”
Both Pollock and Derek Ross of Nova Farms told The Edge the next step for a permanent license is to invite CCC inspectors to the grow properties. They both hope for approvals that will allow them to plant by mid to late June. Dobson is well-known as an organic farmer and said his marijuana would be no different. Ross added that his product will also be grown organically.
Pollock was unsure of precisely how he plans to market the product grown outdoors by Dobson. Theory grows most of the cannabis it sells in an indoor growing facility at its headquarters in Bridgewater.
“In California, ‘sun-grown’ has gotten very popular,” Pollock said. “It’s a good way to look at it.” Pollock added that he is happy to include a local farmer in the company’s efforts.
“We feel strongly about farmers,” Pollock said. “State law encourages farmers to participate in the industry.”
Pollock refers to Section 59 of “An Act to ensure safe access to marijuana,” as the legislation was known at the State House, which addresses the agricultural aspect of cannabis production.
One of the goals of the law is to “ensure farmers’ access to marijuana licenses and to allow for the growth, cultivation, production and harvest of marijuana,” both as a recreational drug and for industrial hemp, “on farm or agricultural lands.” Click here to read an Edge story on the legislation and it implications for local farmers, including Dobson.
On the other side of town, Ross told The Edge his company plans to continue farming products other than cannabis on the 81-acre property at 136 Kellogg Road. A portion of the property had been farmed by neighbors in the community, a practice Ross says he will continue. In addition, he plans to bring in Highland cattle and will keep bees on the property to manufacture cannabis-infused honey.
“It’s such an amazing community,” Ross said. “We’ve kept everything we’ve bought and sourced locally and used local contractors. Our objective is to stimulate the economy.”
About 10 miles to the north, Lee residents Andrew Katkin and Jacob Stricof plan to open a non-retail cannabis edibles manufacturing facility in a space on Crissey Road, which is just off Stockbridge Road and a stone’s throw from the Berkshire South Regional Community Center. The company will be called Superfine Edibles and the product will be mostly chocolate.
Last month, Katkin and Stricof negotiated an agreement with the selectboard that would lower the community impact fee in the host agreement for so-called “microbusiness” cannabis manufacturers from 3 percent to 1.5 percent of gross annual revenues. The board also agreed to lower the amount these businesses must contribute yearly to local nonprofits, from $10,000 annually to 1.5 percent of annual sales up to a maximum of $15,000.
The premise of the drop in fees is that a small operation, especially a manufacturing operation instead of retail, will have a lower impact on the community in terms of traffic and parking, for example.
The CCC defines a microbusiness as a “co-located Tier 1 Marijuana Cultivator, and/or Marijuana Product Manufacturer limited to purchase 2,000 pounds of marijuana from other Marijuana Establishments in one year.”
In an interview, Katkin said part of the attraction of starting a edibles business, which he and Stricof plan to operate by themselves initially, is that it has a lower barrier to entry than retail or cultivation.
“[Retail] is a incredibly highly regulated space and is very expensive,” Katkin said. “We really appreciate that Great Barrington has identified the fact that a microbusiness is important to growing the economy.”
The lower barrier to entry also pleased selectboard member Kate Burke, who has emphasized the social justice component of cannabis legalization. Indeed, the CCC has acknowledged in its regulations that poorer people and persons of color have historically been the subjects of drug enforcement policies far more often than the white and the wealthy.
As a result, victims of these disparities in enforcement who seek licenses to sell cannabis are included in the commission’s Social Equity Program, whose goal is to “ensure that people from communities that have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana law enforcement are included in the new legal marijuana industry.”
“Manufacturing is one of the things we’d like to see more of … it has more of a potential to be more of smaller biz,” Burke said. “There is the potential for people with less money who are hoping to start a marijuana business … you know, you really have to have super deep pockets to start a retail marijuana establishment in Great Barrington or in any town.”
“With edibles, hopefully it’s a business where we are able to break in at a lower cost point,” Katkin told The Edge.
Katkin declined to identify the exact location of his future facility because he is still negotiating a lease with the landlord, but emphasized there will be no signage and that the security system will conform to stringent state regulations.
“It’ll be the safest chocolate shop in the state,” he quipped.
The cultivation, sale and use of recreational cannabis-related products was legalized in Massachusetts through a 2016 ballot initiative. The measure passed by almost 7.5 percentage points statewide and by almost 30 points in Great Barrington. Implementation of the new law was left to the hastily created state Cannabis Control Commission. Preceding that law, medical marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts in 2012 through the same process.