Is it skunk or is it weed?
The air in public spaces in New York has gotten decidedly funky and skunky since the state legalized adult use of recreational marijuana in September 2021. Morning, noon and night, it has become common to walk through (or even drive through) a cloud of weed funk wherever you go. You may love or hate the aromas, but to a handful of pioneering Long Island farmers, the scent of adult use marijuana in the state may signal the sweet smell of success.
One such farmer is Ryan Andoos, whose farm, Route 27 Hemp Yard, evolved from growing hops to hemp with the explosion of CBD—a hemp/cannabis extract low in the psychoactive compound THC—and now has expanded to include the kind of cannabis with enough THC to get you high. Andoos’s experience in the fast-moving yet labyrinthine New York cannabis space tells a lot of the story of where this movement is heading.
Located somewhere east of Shirley on the South Shore (we won’t get more specific than that, because, like most local growers of this valuable cash crop, Andoos keeps the exact location on the downlow), Route 27 Hemp Yard was a nursery owned by the landlord of a florist Andoos worked for in Rockville Centre. The landlord, Bob Schenone, was nearing retirement, so offered Andoos the opportunity to work the land.
Andoos, who grew up in the Oceanside and Rockville Centre areas, began gardening young. “I always loved it; I’ve been doing it since I was five,” Andoos, now 32, says. “We did home gardening. My grandmother and uncles John and Tom and my mother taught me. We grew tomatoes and cucumbers—watermelon, corn. I grabbed onto it and stayed with it my whole life.”
He studied landscape development and horticulture at SUNY Cobleskill. More interested in flowers than ingestible crops at that point, he went to Norway, his ancestral home, to work at Flor&Fjære, a botanical garden on the northern tip of the island of Sør-Hidle. That was followed by a stint at Monet’s storied gardens at Giverny, France. Later he learned to grow hops at Motueka, a town on the south island of New Zealand.
So when he was back on Long Island working at the florist and was offered land to work, he and his recently retired uncle, Mark Carroll, partnered up.
“In early 2016 we cleared two acres; in 2017 we cleared another three; then in 2018 another six,” Andoos says. “Bob helped us do some of the clearing. I immediately planted two acres of hops—my wife had gotten me a beer-making kit.”
Hops are notoriously difficult to grow and harvest; it was hard work. But it is also in the cannabinoid family and the farmers had learned a lot from their first plantings. So when CBD extracts became a worldwide craze around 2019, Andoos and Carroll knew just what to do with the other acres they had cleared.
“In the CBD industry I saw something new in the agricultural world,” he says. “There were a lot of claims about it that were positive, and I wanted to see for myself. It’s not often a new industry opens up,” he says. “So many people were saying that this helps with aches and pains, anxiety, PTSD, saying things like ‘This really changed my life’ and it seemed like just the tip of the iceberg.”
As a product of generations of Navy servicemembers, Andoos also liked hemp’s contribution to American history. “Hemp was so valuable during World War II, we couldn’t produce enough. They used the raw fiber for ropes and canvas. In 1945 a half million acres of hemp were planted to help the war effort,” he says.
But hemp suffered a marketing blow when it became connected with cannabis high in THC and the industry basically shut down. That is until recent years, when the potential healing and healthful properties of CBD extracted from hemp became a worldwide phenomenon and CBD was infused into everything from lip balm to cocktails to dog chews. Under New York State regulations, hemp growers could grow and process and sell their own products; Andoos went ahead and cultivated, processed some into flower and soaps for sale on the Route 27 website and sent the rest for processing into salves and extracts elsewhere. He was fortunate that they had the hops experience; many new growers didn’t know how to dry the harvest and lost devastating amounts of product.
But what had been a lucrative crop when there were only a few thousand hemp growers nationwide became less lucrative as tens of thousands of growers entered the market.
And that’s when legalization came.
New York State under Governor Kathy Hochul waded in hard and fast to tightly regulate all levels of the adult use market—from seed to smoke, as it were. Rather than simply grant licenses to big corporations, the state went antitrust to create opportunities for people up and down the supply chain, prioritizing social equity—meaning helping people who had been adversely impacted by the previous marijuana laws, like incarcerated individuals or their family members, get into the business. The state separated licenses into two tiers: the supply tier: growing and processing; and the retail tier: dispensaries. You could get one or the other, but not both.
In the case of cultivators, licenses were issued to farmers who already had two years minimum experience growing CBD hemp. That gave them a lifeline since the prices for hemp had tanked and also ensured that folks who got adult use cultivating licenses knew what they were doing. The state instituted rigorous testing at every stage of the plant’s life. “The plants are tested under stringent by-laws,” Andoos says. “They test for pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, heavy metals, e Coli, salmonella, mycotoxins, residual solvents, aspergillus, etc. It gets tested more stringently than most of the food you get in the supermarket.”
About 10 of the farm’s 13 acres are plantable. He currently grows mostly hemp and some cannabis. Andoos shows off some of his current plants, which look vigorous and stretch far down tidy rows. He explains it is cannabis ruderalis, a hardy varietal that matures by time in the ground, not by length of days, so he can get two harvests in a season. His training and experience show in his methods; he uses manure from local farms and spent brewer’s grain from Blue Point Brewery to increase organic matter which gives the already good, sandy, loamy soil beneficial bacteria, better water holding capacity for greater resistance to drought, soil biodiversity and more micronutrients.
He also reaches out to fellow agriculturalists. “We work with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead; they are a great asset, especially for integrated pest management and soil questions,” he says. “And it’s nice to be able to talk to other farmers. They are all really friendly; the farming community on the East End is small, so it is good to share information.”
Currently most of the cannabis product is destined for distillants; while the farms and processors have gotten up and running fairly quickly, licensed dispensaries have been slower to open. And that leads to a lot of angst for cultivators. They grow a product that if not used promptly will degrade, but there is nowhere to sell it locally; Long Island’s first and thus far only NYS licensed dispensary opened in Farmingdale in July.
Wait, what? Aren’t there recreational dispensaries all over New York City?
Well, yes, but they aren’t licensed (medical marijuana dispensaries are a different matter) so legitimate NY growers and processors can’t work with them (buyer beware; unlicensed dispensaries are not subject to the stringent testing of licensed producers). Additionally, while New York permits adult use marijuana production and sale, federal law does not. This means marijuana cannot cross state lines, so no export sales.
That makes processors critical to this stage in the industry, where there is almost nowhere to sell bud. Route 27 and others send their harvest out to different processors in either dried form for distillate or field frozen for resins. One of Route 27’s processors is urbanXtracts, in Warwick, New York, where the Town of Warwick and Orange County have revitalized a former correctional facility—originally a reform school started by Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s. At the facility, urbanXtracts has created a boutique cannabis company in a former dairy barn on 19 acres where they cultivate cannabis and produce shelf-stable distillates and resins that can wait for the dispensaries to catch up.
“Everything we do has a one-year shelf-life, if stored properly,” says Jonathan DeMart, VP of operations for urbanXtracts. He says it is important for producers like Route 27 Hemp Yard and his own operation to be nimble and have contingency plans. “We want to see what the state is going to do. It doesn’t deter us from making products or building relationships. You have to be liquid to be ready to change, ready to be compliant. Yes, it’s tough that there aren’t any stores, but we’re flexible. It takes time and adjustment.”
So they keep producing, and waiting. Ryan Andoos works closely with the Cannabis Association of New York, an advocacy group for the growing industry. Everyone pays close attention to the New York State Office of Cannabis Management and its different councils.
In addition to the lack of dispensaries, other concerns include whether the OCM is going to allow existing medical marijuana producers—which have been allowed to cultivate, process and market their own weed for the medical market—or larger companies to jump into the market before the current licensees have had a chance to establish a firm footing.
This stage of the marijuana growing industry has parallels to the development of the Long Island wine industry. A few mavericks take a risk on a new-to-the-region product. At first, it takes a while to get a handle on the right varietals, growing techniques, processing and distribution. New markets have to be developed. The producers have to market to an audience that may already be prejudiced against it, thanks to years of using similar products from, say, California. But with time, the product improves, there are enough consumers to maintain it, it can be sold and it begins to develop its own distinctive terroir. More growers enter the market.
Andoos and DeMart can envision a time when “social consumption” locales—like Amsterdam coffeeshops or North Fork wine bars—are part of the urban and suburban landscape and consumers can meet with friends at a nice place, order Route 27 Hemp Yard flower from a menu and light up. Or that they will be able to purchase weed and edibles at events. DeMart thinks that time is coming soon, spurred, not just by young people, but by retiring New Yorkers who no longer have to worry about drug tests at work or who would like to enjoy getting high without having to worry about criminal prosecution.
“People don’t want to ‘know a guy’ or to be hush-hush about it,” he says. “They want to be able to go to a reputable location with an informed salesperson and have things explained to them.”
It may be starting. Ryan Andoos is speaking with the Singh family who opened that first Long Island dispensary, Strain Stars.
“We are looking to work together,”Andoos says. “The place looks great; their build out was really good. I’m really happy they were the first on Long Island.”
Perhaps soon, Route 27 Hemp Yards cannabis will be on the menu.