Pizzutillo: Vermont farmers and small producers demand access to emerging cannabis market

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Pizzutillo: Vermont farmers and small producers demand access to emerging cannabis market

Mon, 03/07/2022 - 10:42am -- tim

by Geoffrey Pizzutillo The first day of adult-use cannabis sales in Vermont is May 1, 2022, just a couple of months away, when residents and tourists 21 years of age or older will be able to purchase regulated cannabis and cannabis products. Top of mind, right now, for many Vermont farmers and small producers interested in participating in the emerging legal cannabis market is their ability to reach customers, an essential activity for any small business, yet, it is something Act 164 forbids, and local farmers and small producers demand change.

Vermont’s markets, such as cheese, maple syrup, or hemp, are reasonably accessible for local producers. However, under current cannabis laws, Act 164(2020) and 62(2021), and the Cannabis Control Boards proposed final rules for the emerging adult-use cannabis market, farmers and small producers must wholesale their cannabis and cannabis products to wholesaler or retailer licensees, they cannot sell their products directly to consumers, only retailers are allowed to sell to the public. Without direct access to consumers, local farmers and small producers will be become price takers and not price makers, making them succumb to the demands that intermediaries are willing to offer. A market that does not provide reasonable pathways to the thousands of local farmers and small producers interested in participating will bring implications to its formation, harm product diversity for consumers and producers, and impact viability.

For years, local farmers and small producers in Vermont’s hemp market have been producing and selling cannabidiol (CBD) flower and products to the public, including Amy Lems, of Norwich, Vermont, and founder of Vermont Organic Solutions. Amy and her team craft topical and ingestible CBD products for sale online direct-to-consumer as well as wholesale to brick-and-mortar retail stores. Amy says the current laws and proposed rules, ”completely ignore several small businesses like mine that are set up as a craft manufacturer selling to both wholesale and online retail to consumers, but do not have a brick-and-mortar storefront.” Online sales have proven invaluable to Vermont Organic Solutions, and many small businesses across Vermont, especially during the pandemic, and without that option available in the emerging cannabis market, Amy continues, “dispensaries and retail stores will be completely in control of which companies succeed and which do not. They, not the consumer, get to decide what products the consumer is allowed to purchase. This is hardly a fair playing field for many existing small businesses who, like us, have been providing quality products, employment, and adding to the local economy. This favors big money and corporations over small Vermont businesses.”

Entrusting local farmers and small producers with some form of direct-to-consumer access in the upcoming adult-use cannabis market will prove to be a win-win for local retailers, as well. Vermont retailers prefer local farmers and small producers have some degree of direct-to-consumer access, as PJ from Clover Gift Shop, of Woodstock, Vermont, says, “it would complement the current retail environment because it would offer customers cannabis purchasing options without having to leave Woodstock. It would keep our locals local and our tourists shopping in town. It would also help keep small female business owners such as myself active in the cannabis industry. I believe that the ability to offer my customers quality THC products, even if only online for delivery, will keep my business relevant and reduce the impact I am expecting as recreational dispensaries open across the state.” The inherent value of a retailer license comes from the ability to offer many different brands and product varieties to consumers at one location, the ability for local farmers and small producers to have direct-to-consumer access will not conflict with retail establishments, it will complement them and foster a vibrant legal cannabis market.

Local farmers know they cannot survive by wholesaling their products, alone, taking pennies on the dollar, whether its vegetables, dairy, or hemp, and cannabis is no different. “Small, local farmers do not deserve a sub-par price for an exceptional product. Vermont has already set itself apart from the rest of the nation, regarding farmer sovereignty, and it should be no different with cannabis.” says Eduardo Jaime, of Fine Bud Farms, in Randolph, Vermont. “Commodity farming is hard in Vermont, where every farm is a small farm, and many, like mine, are micro sized operated by only one or two individuals.” says Ben Wilcox of Off Piste Farm, in Sutton, Vermont, adding, “Cannabis could be an opportunity to keep small parcels and working lands in production here in our state where we all too often find it difficult to compete in commodity markets. If direct access to consumers is available to small producers, then it can be an opportunity for young people and those without access to large parcels of land to earn a living in a traditional working landscape.”

The ability for customers to meet directly with farmers or small producers, online or in person, is just as necessary to the customer as it is to the small business. As Ben of Off Piste Farm says, “Interacting directly with the consumer, answering their questions and hearing how cannabis helps them, is not only very satisfying for me as a producer, but I think also very beneficial to the savvy consumer who wants to know where their cannabis is coming from, and see that it is being grown in a way that is safe for them and the environment.” Eduardo of Fine Bud Farms agrees, adding, “Direct access to consumers will not only showcase each region but also provide a just and equitable cannabis market where small farmers can thrive and lead the Vermont recreational market rather than abandoned by policies which favor multi-state/national conglomerates that sacrifice quality and prioritize profits over people. The Vermont economy is generated by local communities, and we believe it should stay that way.” Cannabis is a high-value crop, and empowering local farmers and small producers with direct-to-consumer access will allow those dollars to stay in those communities generating local economic development and opportunities across the state.

Behind each of the small producers, retailers, and farmers in this commentary are hundreds, if not thousands, of Vermonters with similar sentiments and shared concerns about their ability to participate in the emerging adult-use cannabis marketplace. Cannabis will be a sizable portion of Vermont’s economy, but the currently proposed adult-use market structure privileges dispensaries and retailers as the only direct access to consumers and will not guarantee fairness for farmers and small producers. It is vital lawmakers and regulators allow local farmers and small producers some form of direct-to-consumer access at market rollout so they may have a fair chance to participate and the opportunity to generate wealth in this new industry.

Geoffrey Pizzutillo, of Burlington, is the cofounder and Executive Director of Vermont Growers Association.