At Claudine Field Apothecary farms, co-owners Jasmine Burems and King Aswad are toiling to get some 1,700 cannabis plants harvested by early November.
“We were really hoping to be out of the field by now. We usually aim to be completely harvested by Halloween. And this year, we will probably be a few days after,” Burems said. “As long as the weather permits.”
It's the first year the yoga instructor-and-herbalist-turned-farmers are cultivating cannabis on their Columbia County farm. They were licensed to grow hemp before winning one of more than 260 adult-use conditional cultivator licenses, awarded by New York state.
This harvest is special. The cannabis that Burems, Aswad, and their fellow cultivators harvest this season will go to make the flower, pre-rolls, concentrates, and edibles sold in New York’s brand new legal, adult-use market. Burems and Aswad also have high hopes it will be the start of an important legacy in New York.
“The idea would be here in New York, really establishing an Appellation of Origin, built on our specific terroir,” Burems said. “New York cannabis meets these various standards in the culture, in the way that we structure business, and in the particular way we coordinate and work together to establish the reputation of this region.”
Big Aspirations in Croptober
But the harvest season — known as Croptober in cannabis — is drawing to a close and there’s still nowhere to legally sell the product. Regulators have repeatedly emphasized that adult-use retail locations in New York will open by the close of 2022. But just recently, Cannabis Control Board Chair Tremaine Wright tempered that optimism, suggesting that one location may open before the year's end.
"There will be a store open in New York by the end of the year," Wright said, according to Business Insider.
Aaron Ghitelman, spokesperson for the New York State Office of Cannabis Management, said regulators are working hard to get as many retail locations open as quickly as possible.
“We know how precarious it must feel for some [farmers]. And that is only fueling us to make sure that we get as many stores open as quickly as possible,” he said.
Risks to Growers
Given that the market is so new, experts say the bottleneck is the none-too-surprising side effect of an incomplete supply chain. It could portend challenges for farmers, who often finance their yields ahead of time.
“They don't know where the cannabis is going to go just yet or when it's going to sell — and they've got bills to pay. All their money is tied up in a harvest that can't be sold yet. So, I think that's kind of the case with a lot of cultivators right now, is they're a little anxious,” said Dan Livingston, executive director of the Cannabis Association of New York (CANY).
CANY is a cannabis association that lobbies and advocates on behalf of more than 500 members in the New York cannabis and hemp industries. The association has suggested different methods to help farmers sell their product in the absence of retail locations, like modifying the conditional adult-use retail dispensaries (CAURD) program to accelerate store openings or even allowing farmers to sell direct to consumers via farmers’ markets. But Livingston admitted “that would require some emergency rulemaking.”
“For farms, OCM is considering every option on the table to make sure that farms are able to sell their products,” Ghitelman said, adding that, “I can't speak to the specific legal or legislative fixes or changes that would be necessary to do what [CANY] was proposing. But we deeply, deeply care about the farmers.”
Burems and Aswad have their own strategies to protect their cannabis. They've allocated 80 percent of their first yield for extracts, which have a long shelf life and can be made into products like vape cartridges, gummies, edibles, and more. For the remaining 20 percent, reserved for flower and prerolls, Burems said they’ll have to “store them to the best of our abilities.”
“When it's in its flower state, it does have a shelf life. There are some things that you can do to sort of prolong it, but, obviously, we don't want to sit around for an entire year before we can start selling flower from this season,” Aswad said.
Ghitelman said the 80/20 split is common among farmers in New York.
New York is also battling a robust gray market, full of unlicensed dispensaries that popped up after New York legalized cannabis through the passage of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) in 2021. But Ghitelman said regulators, for now, aren’t concerned about a glut of legal cannabis making its way to the gray market.
"If you're putting in all of this incredible work, making sure you have really high quality cannabis, you're not going to sell it for less to the illicit market," he said.
Other possible risks to cannabis growers include testing limitations for mold and yeast, which Livingston said aren't achievable for cannabis growers, especially those operating largely outside. Other states like California and Massachusetts kicked off their programs with similar thresholds, before adjusting the standards to more lenient levels, Cannabis Insider reported. Livingston said he expected OCM to follow suit in New York City. Ghitelman said OCM is “looking into it” and determining whether New York’s guidance is in line with states that have gone before.
A Valiant Effort
The rollout of every new cannabis market has had its share of speedbumps. But even those critical of New York’s supply chain inadequacies or concerned about financial losses say the state’s efforts to create an equitable and inclusive industry are admirable.
“Even though it's not it's not the perfect scenario, there's opportunity for actual New York state businesses to build the New York state industry,” Livingston said. “It's wild to even think that that is not the default.”
States that legalized prior to New York have taken different approaches to legalization. In Illinois, for example, which was originally praised for its comprehensive social equity provisions, regulators first permitted existing medical operators to grow and sell adult-use cannabis. That effectively empowered some of the biggest companies in U.S. cannabis to benefit from early enthusiasm for the market. New York’s system, however, has prioritized early access to the market to hemp farmers, distressed farmers, women-owned businesses, and individuals impacted by cannabis criminalization, among others.
Even farmers with much to lose from any potential hiccups in the new system can’t help but feel optimistic.
“I hope that the social equity program is successful. I hope that we really truly see diversity, equity, and inclusion within the cannabis industry in the biggest state of the biggest cannabis market in the world: New York State. And I hope that that model is replicable,” Burems said.