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July 23, 2024 9:29 am

Local News

If New Hampshire Legalizes Cannabis, the Next Challenge Looms: Attracting Farmers

Credit: iStock

by Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin

In theory, Jim Riddle is as ready as any New Hampshire farmer to try his hand at cannabis if the state makes it legal. 

Riddle grew perennial fruit on a farm in Minnesota for 40 years. He moved to Hillsborough to get closer to his daughter, who is raising a family on her own farm. After a pivot, Riddle now grows hemp in an indoor greenhouse operation. And as a board member of the New Hampshire Cannabis Association, he’s a supporter of the effort to legalize cannabis in the state and create a marijuana industry. 

But even for an advocate like Riddle, jumping into a new crop like marijuana is not as easy as setting aside the land and planting. He would need to research which strains are most feasible to grow, the best matched to the state’s demands, and the most lucrative. 

There are new skills to be learned, too: how to harvest, dry, cure, and package the cannabis plants, and how to integrate it into a diverse business.

“You want to do your homework and put product out there that’s going to be well received in the marketplace,” he said. “And I’m nowhere near ready for that.” 

Riddle isn’t alone: While Granite State farmers are aware of the latest push to legalize cannabis in New Hampshire, few are putting their hats in the ring just yet, according to Robert Johnson, policy director for the New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation.

“We’ve had little to no interest from our membership,” Johnson said in an interview, noting that the Farm Bureau has not taken a position on legalization. 

“I think the right word is ‘skepticism’ amongst farmers that it would really be a benefit to New Hampshire agriculture,” Johnson said, adding that he would expect those interested to be smaller boutique farms. 

The questions of whether and how to begin growing are difficult to answer when the state has not even passed a legalization bill, let alone worked out detailed regulations and store plans that could help inform farmers on the best approach forward. But if the state wants to stand up a viable market after legalizing, those answers are important, Riddle and others say. Federal laws prevent the sale of cannabis across state lines, meaning any marijuana products sold in New Hampshire would have to be grown here, too. 

Lawmakers are working on legislation that could pass the House and Senate in 2024, after Gov. Chris Sununu announced in May that he would support a cannabis legalization model with state-controlled retail sales. If that legislation were to pass and be signed into law in the summer of 2024, most farming operations would likely not be fully operational until 2025, legalization advocates say. 

This month, the New Hampshire Cannabis Association released the results of a survey that suggests that interest among some New Hampshire farmers is high, even if few are talking publicly about it.

The survey found that 87 percent of respondents support legalization in general, and that 78 percent “expressed interest” in growing cannabis if it were legalized. That, notes Riddle, is a higher percentage of support than among the New Hampshire public; a University of New Hampshire poll in February found 71 percent of respondents supported legalization. 

“That was really encouraging,” Riddle said.

In total, 69 farmers responded to the survey; the New Hampshire Farm Bureau counts around 2,000 farmer members. 

But while interest is high among the respondents, many appear to be awaiting the details. Most of the farmers surveyed were not fans of the approach favored by Sununu that would see the state control the sales of cannabis. Of the respondents, 11 percent said they would support it, 63 percent said they were opposed, and 26 percent were undecided. 

New Hampshire Liquor Commission officials have recently said they would prefer a “franchise model” in which the state sells licenses to store owners who can then hire their own staff and manage the store, under strict guidelines from the state. Yet some survey respondents warned that model would still create an effective monopoly by the state where growers would have little means to compete for higher profits. 

“Cannabis is a crop like any other and farmers should be able to successfully manage it on their own,” wrote one farmer in a written response to the survey. “The state does not need to micromanage and create additional taxation around this crop.”

Survey respondents supported a proposal to allow cannabis farmers to sell their products on-site, outside of the state’s official cannabis stores. That suggestion was made by Liquor Commission Chair Joseph Mollica during remarks to lawmakers in September.

Most farmers also appeared to support legalizing a “home grow” option that would allow residents to grow their own cannabis plants. 

For New Hampshire cannabis legalization advocates, attracting local farmers is key. Tim Egan, the board chairman of the New Hampshire Cannabis Association, says the association doesn’t want major industrial players to enter the state and take over the market, squeezing out smaller growers. 

As they craft a legalization bill, Egan said lawmakers should take measures to prevent that kind of monopolization. They could limit the number of growing licenses one company could own, reducing consolidation, he said. They could also create different tiers of licenses depending on the size of the farm; by letting smaller farms pay a smaller entry fee, local farmers would be more likely to participate. 

“They’re talking about an entry fee of up to $175,000,” he said, referring to discussions in the commission. “So if you’re talking about a small market farmer in Colebrook, or Derry, or out in western New Hampshire, where are they going to find that capital?”

Aside from encouraging a competitive market, Riddle says the state should put resources into providing educational materials for farmers who are interested in participating. “So that people easily know what the rules of the road are, where and how they can access funding,” he said. 

That includes guidance on how to produce and prepare the cannabis products for manufacturers and retailers, and how to work with state inspectors and with any tracking system lawmakers implement over sales. 

For Riddle and other farmers, the goal is to convince lawmakers not to just sit back and let the market arrange itself. 

“We want to really make sure that free enterprise is front and center, that supporting New Hampshire’s agricultural community is front and center, and that it’s not just all greenhouses, vertically integrated by these multi-state operations,” he said. 

As for farmers, most don’t want to stick their neck out about cannabis yet. Even Riddle’s daughter and son-in-law are staying cautious, he said. 

“Until it’s legal, they don’t even really want to talk to me about it all that much,” he said. 

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.