New York’s weedbasket?

| 01 May 2019 | 12:51

    Inside a hemp greenhouse, it smells like the future

    By Becca Tucker

    Photos by Rusty Tagliareni

    On a Friday morning, I walked into a greenhouse a stone’s throw from my kid’s blue-ribbon elementary school and inhaled. I knew they were growing hemp here, but I hadn’t realized how completely hemp “looks, acts and smells the part of marijuana,” as Ed McCauley, the co-owner of Fusion CBD, puts it.

    McCauley and facility manager Ralph Corvino gave me the grand tour of the 32,000-square-foot complex in Warwick, NY. It was the same tour they’d given the seven state troopers who recently escorted a shipment from their sister farm in Oregon into the loading dock.

    The troopers’ surprise tour ended in “handshakes not handcuffs,” Corvino reported. For weeks afterwards, the phrase was a mantra around the place.

    Since it was taken off the schedule of controlled substances as part of the 2018 farm bill, hemp is considered an agricultural crop that, unlikemarijuana, can be freely transported across state lines. That’s taking some getting used to for everyone along the supply chain. There are “the heroes,” said Corvino, rolling his eyes.

    “A couple days ago a delivery was seized in Tennessee,” said McCauley. “It was returned, minus one pound.” I laughed. McCauley and Corvino did not.

    The state troopers’ surprise tour ended in “handshakes not handcuffs,” Corvino reported. For weeks afterwards, the phrase was a mantra around the place.

    Was there something confusing about growing thousands of cannabis plants right here, where you can just walk in, so close to a school? McCauley shook his head. “The whole town loves us,” said McCauley, 60, coffee cup in one hand and cigarette in the other.

    McCauley, who is from Bergen County and now lives in Campbell Hall, NY, was a builder until he happened to meet Adam Kurtz in 2015. Adam Kurtz… the name was familiar.

    As it happens, 2015 was the year I met Kurtz, too, when I walked into his fine art photo studio incongruously plopped in the middle of the black dirt to interview him for this magazine. Kurtz, a Warwick native, came up in the family business, growing and selling fresh cut flowers. Grammy’s Garden, started by his mom and dad, was growing as many as 300,000 plants on 12 acres at its height: snapdragons, sunflowers, zinnias, claytonia, bells of Ireland. But that business had faded and by the time we met, Kurtz was taking pictures of luxury cars for a living—and dreaming of growing hemp.

    “I still have growing in me,” Kurtz told Dirt in 2015, fingering the canister of Indian hemp on his desk; American hemp wasn’t yet legal. “I’ve always wanted to grow the one crop I couldn’t.”

    The next year, he and McCauley founded Fusion CBD. Kurtz moved his young family to Oregon, where he’s now farming eight acres and 20 varieties of hemp. When New York awarded CBD Fusion a three-year license, McCauley came back east. Now here he is, learning on the job about pests, winter ventilation and chemistry as he hustles to keep up with exploding demand.

    At one point, hearing that I lived on seven acres in Chester, McCauley asked if I wanted to grow hemp and handed me a business card. (Maybe?)

    By now you’ve seen CBD lotion or mints in your health food store. Maybe you’ve had a CBD oil massage. Or smoked hemp cones you bought at Smoker’s Choice. A colleague, Douglas Sealfon, who lives in Putnam County, spends $120 a month on a Colorado grown CBD oil for his two senior cocker spaniels. He adds it to their meals twice daily with an eyedropper. One of them, he’s noticed, now spends “less time being schluffy,” a good thing. The other’s hyper-sensitivity hasn’t improved. If anything he’s now more alert, maybe too tuned in. Sealfon would “totally do it” himself, but he can’t afford to on top of his dogs’ habit.

    Which is to say, it’s big business. CBD, the non-psychoactive component of cannabis, is looking like the tonic of the future. Despite murky regulations—is it a food? a supplement? a drug? the FDA has yet to decide—this wild west niche is spinning off into its own mega-industry, and Warwick wants to be at the epicenter of the boom.

    “Warwick is very active in industrial development. It brings in jobs. When they see an emerging industry that could be as big as this? They’re smart,” McCauley said.

    Indeed, CBD Fusion has plenty of company in town. A new medical marijuana grow called Citiva has taken over 8.5 acres of a former prison in town. A government-backed business accelerator is partially funding a $2.1 million facility that will turn an old dairy barn in another part of the old prison into a facility that extracts CBD, the active ingredient from hemp plants.

    Warwick Supervisor Michael Sweeton likens cannabis to the dairy industry of the 20th century, in terms of its potential to transform our area. Dairy farmers are on their way out “because the whole national dairy pricing scheme is stacked against them,” said Sweeton. “So what do we do with this land?”

    Grow cannabis, both hemp and medical marijuana. (Legalization is another story for another day.) Turn it into whatever the market wants: a medicine to replace opioids? You name it. “We want to position the Hudson Valley as being the premier spot for this growing industry,” Sweeton said. Finally, farmers who’ve been struggling for a generation have “a real opportunity to make a profitable product.”

    The Mid-Orange Correctional Facility, which closed in 2011 and the town took over in 2014, has given Warwick an added ace in the hole: 730 acres of flexible space.

    “This is going to produce some nice-paying jobs for people, and we’ve never really had that ability in a big way in Warwick. We never had the corporate space. The prison has given us that, the land and the resources to be able to provide a place for these kind of higher paying jobs that will hopefully come,” he said.

    Citiva expects to eventually employ 60 people. CBD Fusion thinks it will create 20 jobs in New York.

    Everyone knows this is a young industry that has yet to shake out. On top of the usual start-up risks, early entrepreneurs face the specter of big players waiting in the wings for federal regulations to get ironed out.

    “We’ve been in discussions with other companies from the West Coast making plays in New York,” said Sweeton. “Real players that are already past the learning curve portion of this industry, actually making product and signing up growers and producing CBD oil.”

    “You see labs going up all the time,” said McCauley. “Some of ‘em don’t make it. The whole industry is a work in progress.”

    McCauley and Corvino have known each other 47 years. Corvino came north from Florida last year to paint a house that McCauley built, and never left. Greenhouse manager Nicole Vetterlein, 33, is McCauley’s step-daughter.

    Vetterlein, of Waldwick, NJ, used to be a hair stylist, but she has always worked with plants, too, since she was a kid helping her great-grandmother in her vegetable garden. “It’s kind of like my Xanax,” she said. She’s done landscape design, sold vegetables, made flower arrangements. She has a fish tank for underwater plants, and keeps a pink lemon tree in a big pot in the greenhouse.

    “This was always my goal,” she said. “I didn’t know how or where. It’s like I willed it to be.” Is there a downside? She thinks. “Everything you see in this place, I planted. Maybe my back hurts sometimes?”

    A farmer appears in the loading dock, looking like he dressed for the part in plaid shirt tucked into jeans and baseball cap. “I missed the smell,” he says in a thick accent.

    Peter Furtado, originally from Portugal, raises beef cattle upstate in Condor, NY. He is one of the farmers scattered around the state who will grow out the seedlings that Vetterlein is starting. Last year he grew two acres of hemp; this year he’ll try ten. “Two acres was tough on my hands,” he said, holding out calloused fingers. “Ten acres?” he shrugs. “My hands.”

    Kurtz has been shopping for mechanized harvesting equipment in Colorado, said McCauley. But for now, New York farmers must harvest by hand, a process that’s labor intensive, time sensitive and sticky. You’ve got to get the crop out of the field and hung up to dry right away. Furtado is in the middle of building a third barn where he can hang freshly harvested hemp—a major expense.

    “There’s a lot of upfront risks for an industry that doesn’t have a lot of room for tremendous risks, because they get battered all the time with different things,” said Sweeton. Last year, for instance, standing water took out a portion of Furtado’s crop.

    “Who knows five years from now what’s going to happen?” said Sweeton. “Farmers are willing to learn and take risks to make this a profitable thing.”

    Furtado had as many as 12 guys working in his two-acre field at the height of last year’s harvest. One, he recounted, was wearing a sleeveless shirt. Furtado said nothing, just watched with amusement as the bud stuck to his arm hair and the man finally realized he’d been coated in resin. “Your clothes? Can’t get rid of it,” said Furtado. “The smell is strong when you’re working in the middle.”

    More concerning than getting the side-eye when he goes to town, though, is the cost of the new barn, on top of what he’s spending to build his stock of cattle. The farm “right now is a money pit,” Furtado said. But once things settle down, “probably you make more money from this every year than cows.”