For farmers, pot growers market plan is another disappointment

July 19, 2023
New York's state Office of Cannabis Management plan to let pot growers sell their glut of products at cannabis farmers' markets hits snag

Jul. 19—When the state Office of Cannabis Management announced a plan to let pot growers sell their glut of products at cannabis farmers' markets in May, farmers seized on the idea.

Two months later, what was touted as a lifeline to struggling pot farmers has turned into yet another disappointment in the state's slow-moving attempt to create a legal cannabis market.

The idea was simple: Allow pot farmers to band together to sell their cannabis in a farmer's market-like setting, with only marijuana available. The plan did not allow cannabis farmers to sell pot at conventional farmers markets, next to the fruits, vegetables and flowers grown by traditional farmers.

Pot farmers viewed the proposal as a lifeline. They grew crops last year in anticipation of having stores open early this year to sell their wares and instead were sitting on piles of pot with no place to sell it because legal cannabis shops have been so slow to open.

Only one legal cannabis store has opened in the Buffalo Niagara region, outside of a handful on Native American reservations, severely depressing a market that pot growers had hoped would be robust by now.

But the glacial pace of the rollout of the legal cannabis market meant that instead of selling pot and bringing in revenue, the cannabis farmers were saddled with the added expense of storing their cannabis or converting it into a form that wouldn't spoil.

After sitting for months on unsold cannabis, farmers hoped they were finally looking at a way that would allow them to connect with consumers and unload the product that some had risked their life savings cultivating. It would provide the last missing piece — albeit a temporary one — in a promised supply chain: a place to sell their wares.

It hasn't turned out that way.

As the days wear on, farmers are losing hope once again, as the push for cannabis farmers' markets seems to have stalled.

It's just one more disappointment in a list that keeps mounting as the state stumbles through its slow and delayed rollout of legal retail cannabis sales.

"It's just an absolute disaster," said Thomas Szulist, a state-licensed grower in Appleton.

Planting time has come around again, leaving growers to once again take on the cost and risk of investing in new crops — even while their storehouses burst with last season's unsold product.

"I like the idea of a farmers market," said Chris Van Dusen, CEO of Empire Hemp Co.

Fast-tracking consumer sales in such a way is more appealing to him than selling products to sanctioned shops on tribal lands — another stopgap measure the state is working on that was announced last month.

Van Dusen said farmers' markets would give growers more control over the process and, likely, a better return 0150 — but only if they happen.

"I think it would be more opportunity for the cultivators to make more profit on their yields," he said.

Public officials have shied away from questions and tempered their remarks.

Tremaine Wright, the chair of the state's Office of Cannabis Management, said last month that the board had encountered some obstacles to implementing the program, but he declined to elaborate. Last week, the agency was much more subdued about the idea than it had been when markets were originally announced as a done deal.

"We are committed to the success of New York's equitable cannabis industry, and are always open to considering opportunities to strengthen the program," Aaron Ghitelman, spokesperson for the Office of Cannabis Management, said in a statement. "No final decisions have been made with respect to farmers markets."

In the meantime, no local cannabis farmers' markets have opened.

"I don't think the governor's office likes this idea. That's kind of been the issue," said Aleece Burgio, an attorney at Colligan Law in Fountain Plaza and program executive chair of the New York State Bar Association Cannabis Section.

Gov. Kathy Hochul's office, when asked for comment, deferred to the OCM.

Though the governor may need some convincing, there is still hope the concept could work, Burgio said.

"I don't think that this pop-up market situation is completely dead in the water. I think we might see some sort of altering to it," she said. "And I hope we do because these licensees really need it."

The way she sees it, the concept is suffering from an image problem.

"I think probably one of the biggest issues is calling it a farmers market and that's kind of where the standstill has been," she said. "People outside of cannabis are seeing this as a legitimate farmers market where people will be going, there'll be other products sold, kids can go — and that's not the case."

But the idea had never been for farmers to sell their pot and edibles alongside potatoes and eggplant. The pot purveyors would not be setting up shop at traditional farmers' markets to sell their wares. The idea was for at least two growers and one retailer to coordinate their own, separate pop-up sales at non-storefront locations.

The pop-up marketplaces would mirror the same strict regulations for cannabis sales that are being developed for its heavily regulated retail dispensaries — full security, protocols for entering the location, seed-to-sale tracking and consumers would have to be of a qualifying age and show identification.

There also are other hurdles that would need to be cleared. Municipalities would have to sign off on the markets, and growers would have to find suitable sites, with willing landlords, many of whom have shied away from renting to pot store license holders.

The concept would also be just a temporary, stopgap measure to quickly connect growers, retailers and buyers in an emergency — not a permanent solution, Burgio said.

"There's like, 300,000 pounds of unsold cannabis right now that is sitting there, so if you do speak with growers and processors, you know there is a dire need to get this product out," she said.

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