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(This story is part of the cover package in the October issue of MJBizMagazine.)
Vermont is a small farming state, so it’s no surprise that recreational marijuana regulations included multiple license types for small cannabis farms to foster a craft ethos in the market’s burgeoning adult-use industry, which launched Oct. 1, 2022.
Like other small farmers in the Green Mountain State, marijuana cultivators face a daunting climate of suppressed wholesale prices, inflation and high taxes.
Unlike their peers, many small cannabis farmers seem largely unaware of the opportunity Vermont offers license holders to diversify beyond their core agricultural products.
“At this stage, (they’re) not very aware at all,” said Lisa Chase, director of the Vermont Tourism Research Center at the University of Vermont Extension.
Vermont’s small farmers have a well-established tradition and strategy of generating revenue beyond selling cheese and rhubarb.
They host festivals, concerts and farm-to-table dinners; they also have gift shops that sell T-shirts, books and other souvenirs.
“Vermont has this culture of value-added agriculture: harvest festivals and people coming together for dinners on farms,” said Eli Harrington, owner-operator of Vermontijuana, a cannabis farm doing business in northern Vermont under a Tier 2 license, which allows for 312 plants.
“Vermont has really fostered that culture. It’s the only way that small producers can really survive.”
Harrington is among a handful of marijuana farmers who are tapping into Vermont’s value-added spirit.
He launched tours of his farm last summer, hosts various events there and operates a gift shop.
“It’s a mandate more than an option,” he said. “We’ve been able to really tap into the Vermont tourism and agritourism communities and replicate a lot of these best practices.”
For example, Chase said, when Vermont sugar houses boil sap in the winter, they don’t just sell maple syrup, they turn it into an event with food, music and souvenirs.
“There are many lessons that can be learned by working with other types of growers, how they’ve diversified their income sources,” Chase said.
“Whether it’s dairy or maple or apples or cannabis, there’s a lot of similarities in the way that growers can offer different types of experiences and education around what they do.
“And then that can bring in supplemental income.”
She added: “Cannabis is a different thing because there’s so many regulations around it. But it does seem to have a lot of potential that is worth exploring.”
A small farm is born
Before obtaining his cultivation license last year, Harrington was active in Vermont’s cannabis-event space, helping organize cannabis conventions and competitions.
Through this work, Harrington got to know cultivators including Ben Wilcox, who at the time grew hemp. In 2020, the two combined their expertise to offer tours of Wilcox’s Off Piste Farm in Sutton, Vermont.
“At the time, there was still a lot of novelty seeing that many cannabis plants – especially outside in the mountains in Vermont, not hidden away. That was really impactful,” Harrington said.
“Because it was CBD, it was a chance for us to get our feet wet and ask, ‘What do we want to do with this once the switch flips to THC plants?’”
In the tour’s first iteration, Harrington drove a van and collected customers at a local restaurant at an appointed time.
He then drove them to Wilcox’s farm for the tour and to talk about cultivation.
There was some interest from mountain bikers and campers who visited the farm as part of their travels.
Harrington and Wilcox conducted tours of the hemp farm for three summers before Vermontijuana was granted a marijuana cultivation license last year.
Giving agritourism a try
In 2022, Harrington harvested about 100 pounds of marijuana, which he sold mostly as pre-rolls to 11 retailers that carried his products.
To generate additional revenue, he decided to open the farm to tours and events; he also created a gift shop.
“We saw it both as an opportunity and … thinking about it like, ‘Hey, this is how successful agricultural-based businesses in Vermont work.’ They have products, they have retail, they have merch, and they bring people on site,” Harrington said.
The tours cost $25-$30 per person and took place on Sundays this year between Aug. 6 and Sept. 10. In the first four weeks, Vermontijuana had 47 visitors.
The gift shop sells Vermontijuana-branded merchandise as well as chickens and eggs from his farm.
Vermontijuana merch includes branded lighters, T-shirts and golf balls as well as posters from past events and farm tours. Harrington also sells cannabis leaf and pre-roll keychains created by some of his crafty friends.
“If I can sell somebody a $5 or $8 pint glass that cost me $3 or $4, that’s a nice little supplemental income,” Harrington said, adding, “I’m a small producer, so I’m buying pint glasses by the case, not the pallet. I buy T-shirts by the dozens and not by the thousands. I hope the tours help us grow in that capacity.”
The chickens that Harrington sells are usually 5 or 6 pounds, and farm tourists get them for $5 per pound.
He doesn’t produce enough eggs to sell them by the dozen, but he does sell them in smaller quantities and bakes them into quiches – along with a neighbor’s pork and locally made cheese – as well as breakfast sandwiches that he sells at events and on tour days.
Harrington said he also gifts eggs “strategically” to marijuana retail managers and budtenders.
He’s often thinking about “what else can we sell to help us get through and diversify so that, as a business, we’re not 100% reliant on the outdoor crop – even though it is the product that drives everything.”
Harrington also puts on two cannabis-friendly golf tournaments. On Aug. 26, he partnered with Barton Golf Club to host the inaugural Vermontijuana Open Golf Tournament, which featured 18 teams of four players each. The entry fee was $60 per player.
In addition, he is one of the organizers of The Green Finders Invitational Golf Tournament, which took place for the fifth time on Sept. 10.
Creating the tour
The cannabis plants are located on Harrington’s Vermontijuana farm, which he describes as a working homestead.
Last year, he decided to scrap picking up passengers with his van.
While the pair could charge more for providing transportation, the van, gas and insurance all cost money.
Plus, coordinating customers to meet at a specific time came with its own challenges, Harrington said.
Instead, tourists buy their tickets online and pick them up at the town post office. The tickets are printed with Vermontijuana’s address.
Tours start at the top of every hour from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and last 30 minutes.
After the tour, ticketholders can browse the gift shop or listen to musicians that Harrington has started hiring to play on tour days.
Mostly, he noted, “People just want to hang out and be around the plants.”
The tourists observe the plants from a few feet away, behind a temporary fence that is meant more for “demarcation” than security.
Harrington said that tour-takers are mostly a blend of home growers, cannabis consumers and industry professionals.
Typical attendees include couples in their 60s and 70s where one or both are interested in growing and want to learn from professionals, Harrington said.
“They’re home growers. They want to talk about cannabis. They want to see other people’s plants. They’re looking for fellowship,” Harrington said.
“It’s inevitable that at some point, one of these boomers is going to pull out their phone and show me their plants.”
Consumers, on the other hand, mostly want to take selfies next to the plants.
“The best visits are from retailers who bring their budtenders, and we can really talk about the land and growing sun-grown cannabis,” Harrington said.
He isn’t sure whether the tours will be profitable – he pays for port-a-potties, musicians and advertising – but it will “at least be close,” he said.
“The tours are really good marketing. Maybe they’ll break even or be a little profitable. But it’s not highly profitable,” he said.
Chase, the director of the Vermont Tourism Research Center, believes agritourism presents real opportunity for cannabis cultivators, but few are aware of it.
“Consumers don’t know that these experiences are available,” she said.
Harrington asked his guests to fill out a survey, and he noted that almost all of them were referred by a retailer and traveled more than 45 minutes to his farm.
“I’ve been building relationships with retailers. Every retailer who sells my stuff has a comp code, so they can send their employees on a tour for free. Many of them are also sponsors of the tour, so I give them a discount code,” Harrington said.
In terms of other types of advertising for the tours, Harrington eschews social media and instead opts for making his own posters that he distributes to stores to display.
“Where I am in Vermont is a seasonal-tourist area, and a lot of it is physical advertising and getting posters up and having strategic partnerships,” Harrington said.
Vermontijuana recently joined the Vermont Fresh Network, a nonprofit group that promotes professional development, marketing and networking among small farmers.
The group recently started admitting cannabis farms.
No direct sales
One big difference between marijuana farm tours and mainstream farm tours is that marijuana growers can’t sell their product directly to consumers like other farmers can sell produce, dairy and maple syrup to visitors.
“Not being able to sell direct to consumers is a huge barrier because so much of the agritourism and farm experiences in Vermont are about direct sales,” Chase said.
“People come to your dairy and learn about how you make cheese or ice cream – and then they spend a lot of money on your product.”
Harrington agreed, saying: “That’s obviously the missing component in all this, doing direct sales. That’s why agritourism works for other producers, because it’s such a good way to have direct sales, the lowest overhead with the maximum profit. With cannabis, that’s not possible now. I think it’ll take a couple years before it’s even considered.”
In the meantime, Harrington and others are working with their retail partners to come up with some type of event and catering permit in Vermont.
“That’s the solution in the future. It’d be nice to bring people up here and have a retail partner with a mobile operation or tent where they can sell people our product,” he said.