In fields from Sag Harbor to Ithaca, a new crop ripened this fall: cannabis plants grown for recreational marijuana.
By John Ortved – Photographs by Paul Barbera – Nov 4 2022
It was a longtime cash crop in the United States, as American as apple pie.
Cannabis sativa fields stretched from New England to Virginia even before the Revolutionary War, when the crop’s main product, hemp, was used in the production of rope, sails, paper and clothing.
George Washington grew it on his plantation. Thomas Jefferson came up with new ways of threshing the fibrous, fast-growing plant. Through the 19th century, the psychoactive drug derived from some varieties of the plant was often used in medicines and cure-alls that claimed to alleviate various conditions including rheumatism and melancholia.
The growing of cannabis was all but prohibited in the United States after 1937, when Congress, in response to rising anti-marijuana sentiment, passed the Marijuana Tax Act in an effort to regulate varieties of the plant containing high levels of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. It was the start of an effective ban that has eased in recent years, as a result of gradual decriminalization, but is only now beginning to lift fully in many states.
Across New York, from Sag Harbor to Ithaca, farmers have lately been harvesting the first legal cannabis crop grown for recreational use in many decades. Some of them had been preparing for this moment even before March 2021, when New York became the 16th state to legalize recreational marijuana for people 21 and older. Shortly after the law passed, the state began the process of issuing 261 conditional licenses to farmers who qualified, according to the Office of Cannabis Management, which regulates the plant in New York.
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During this year’s harvest, the operators of two New York farms took some time away from their busiest season to discuss the pleasures and challenges of a plant that is not always so easy to grow in their part of the world.
Aswad Sallie, who goes by the name King, and Jasmine Burems are among the small-scale farmers trying to make a go of it in this new industry. Together they run Claudine Farm Resort, an eight-and-a-half-acre spread in Copake, a small town in Columbia County. They lease the property.
Ms. Burems, 37, and Mr. Sallie, 46, began dating each other in 2014 after meeting at a hot yoga studio in Brooklyn where he was an instructor. At the time, Ms. Burems was working as an herbalist, a jazz singer and a doula. About a year after they met, Ms. Burems was pregnant, and they decided to make a dramatic change: Leave behind their life in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and move to a farm in Columbia County.
The decision did not come out of nowhere. As a teenager, Mr. Sallie had been sent to live for a time at his grandfather’s farm near Cooperstown, N.Y. — to keep him out of trouble, he said — and he wanted the same kind of rural experience for his family.
“That first year,” Ms. Burems said, “we started with a pickax and a heavy rake and spool of cord to make our rows straight.”
They focused on squash, watermelons, herbs and flowers, among other crops. They also founded an advocacy group for Black farmers, the Institute of Afrofuturist Ecology, and took much of their fruits and vegetables to farmers’ markets in New York City.
“We sell them through a Black Food Sovereignty network, primarily in the city,” said Mr. Sallie, who worked for years as an actor and was a musician in the Black Rock Coalition. “We just sold about 300 pounds of our squash to the Afropunk festival in Brooklyn.”
Once they were established, they started growing cannabis plants to meet the demand brought on by the explosion of foods, tinctures and other products containing CBD, or cannabidiol, a nonintoxicating hemp derivative. Mr. Sallie and Ms. Burems saved enough to buy a tractor, which helped them with the hemp as well as the fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs that they have continued to cultivate.
More About Cannabis
With recreational marijuana becoming legal in several states, cannabis products are becoming more easily available and increasingly varied.
- Marijuana Pardons: President Biden pardoned thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law and said his administration would review how the drug is legally categorized.
- Combating ‘Cannaphobia’: Dasheeda Dawson, New York City’s first cannabis director, has been tasked with building up new cannabis businesses and absorbing the illegal market into the legitimate one.
- High Design: As cannabis legalization has become more widespread, retailers are getting increasingly serious about the design and branding of their shops.
- Use on the Rise: Federal survey data on substance use shows the growing mainstream acceptance of cannabis and hallucinogenic compounds among young adults.
Their latest crop included strains of the plant that are rich in THC — including Platinum Girl Scout Cookie, Tenzin Kush and G-13. These will indeed get you high. On an October afternoon, Mr. Sallie and Ms. Burems showed them off with pride.
“This is Blueberry Cupcake,” Mr. Sallie said, gesturing toward some fragrant plants growing beside a neat row of marigolds.
Nearby, he pointed out the G-13 plants with especially plump buds. Using a magnifying app on his phone, Mr. Sallie homed in on the flower’s minuscule, crystal-like trichomes, sprouting all along the bud like tiny mushrooms.
“They go from clear to cloudy to amber colored,” he said. “Amber is what you want. That’s where the medicine is happening.”
In late October, as the plants ripened, Mr. Sallie and Ms. Burems called in friends and relatives to help with the work of bringing in the crop. Many of the people who showed up had made the trip before, to help with harvests during the CBD craze.
“They work with us as if they were like paid employees,” Ms. Burems said. “They put in real hardcore shifts.”
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