April 19, 2023 943 PM
MARFA — Village Farms is applying for a license from the Texas Department of Public Safety to grow cannabis in a one-acre greenhouse at its Marfa location in addition to existing tomato crops. If the application is successful, the company also plans to add a dispensary to the property.
The move comes at a time when lawmakers are calling for the expansion of Texas’ Compassionate Use Program (TCUP) — which allows for the cultivation and sale of medical marijuana in limited doses to patients with certain conditions — and the agribusiness is seeking to diversify its revenue streams.
At a Presidio County Commissioners Court meeting last week, Senior Vice President of Strategy for Village Farms Paul Furfaro and the company’s lawyer, Susan Hays, sought, and ultimately won, a letter of support from local government officials for their license application.
The company representatives argued that the addition of cannabis crops would help keep the business alive — adding taxable value and creating new jobs — while opening up the potential for future expansion as marijuana laws in Texas evolve.
“This climate, this altitude and the days of sun, is extraordinary for growing both tomatoes and cannabis,” said Hays. “Looking long term as the laws around cannabis change in the country and internationally, this region is really well positioned to have steady manufacturing or cultivation and bring dollars to the community.”
As it stands, Texas has one of the most conservative medical marijuana programs in the nation, said Hays, and while current bipartisan legislation — which recently passed the House — seeks to broaden the conditions that qualify for the TCUP program to include chronic pain (accepted conditions now include epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder and more), there is still a long way to go to ensure enough medical marijuana supply to meet demand.
Gaining a foothold in the medical cannabis market could help the tri-county’s Village Farms greenhouses avoid the fate of its Monahans greenhouse, Hays argued to commissioners, which the company recently chose to shut down and sell due to the fact that the operation was no longer profitable.
“We don’t want that to happen in Marfa. We don’t want that to happen in Fort Davis,” said Hays. “This is a way to create jobs, but within a very, very restrictive conservative market right now, which is the medical market for cannabis here.”
County Commissioner David Beebe voiced support for the initiative, stating that the county had little by way of industry. “Just any type of job where somebody can make a living and pay the bills is a big deal for us,” he said.
Village Farms has been working for years to future-proof its business. In 2019 it announced it would begin growing hemp — a non-psychoactive form of the cannabis plant — in the area. “You can’t make it in vegetables,” CEO Mike De-Giglio told The Big Bend Sentinel at the time, citing an inability to compete with Mexico grower’s low produce prices.
But, due to a volatile market and prohibitive state regulatory practices, according to Hays, the hemp initiative never came to fruition. Village Farms did, however, make a successful foray into cultivating cannabis in Canada, where it is currently one of the top growers, having entered into the market at the time of legalization in the country around 2017. If it were to be awarded the license through the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) to grow medical marijuana in Marfa, it would be the company’s first cannabis operation in the U.S.
In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel Furfaro explained the one-acre greenhouse — a small portion of the company’s 60 acres worth of Marfa tomato crops — they intend to use for cannabis production, if awarded the license, was severely damaged in a 2012 hail storm and never rehabilitated. He said the company wanted to retrofit it and put it to good use using their know-how from growing cannabis in Canada and saw a need in the Texas market, where just three licenses have been awarded for medical marijuana cultivation, all of which are in the general Central Texas area.
“One of the biggest criticisms that we’ve been able to learn about from patients is not enough producers, way too expensive, not very easy to get depending on where you are in Texas,” said Furfaro.
“We’ll be able to serve a part of Texas which has been underserved right now, which is all of West Texas,” he continued.
Hays said current regulations are not clear on how many plants or acres can be grown, but if the license is awarded Village Farms will not be limited to raising one acre of cannabis plants — though that greenhouse will serve as ample starting space.
“You can make a lot of cannabis medicine off an acre,” said Hays. “In the long run, that facility is very well positioned if the laws in Texas get broader.”
But with legalization up in the air on the federal and state levels as well as laws regarding interstate commerce, the future of the nation’s marijuana market is unknown, said Furfaro, and Village Farms was poised to focus on what it could accomplish with the license and one-acre greenhouse for now.
“Right now, the only thing we can really focus on is that one little greenhouse, which is going to be able to supply Texans, if they want it, and to be able to do it at a competitive, good price,” said Furfaro. “Our only ambition is to be able to get a license and then to evolve at the same pace that regulations evolve with the states and not anywhere faster.”
Because the license through the state is a vertically-integrated license, Village Farms will be required to not only cultivate, but also process, test and distribute their own cannabis products. (In other states, third party independent testing is a basic safety regulation.) The creation of a lab will lead to more highly-skilled, higher-paying jobs in the area, said Furfaro, for people trained in quality assurance practices and governmental regulations.
“There’s going to be new jobs that are going to be created, and there’s going to be very specialized jobs that are going to be created to be able to run a medical cannabis facility within the state of Texas,” said Furfaro.
From a cultivation standpoint, tomatoes and cannabis are fairly similar, said Furfaro, with marijuana plants being slightly more laborious, requiring careful handling. He claimed new cannabis plants would not require more water than the company was currently using to farm tomatoes. Village Farms is the largest user of water in Presidio County and utilizes a reverse osmosis to remove minerals from well water, as well as a water recycling system.
Heightened security would also be a feature of the one-acre medical cannabis greenhouse — in addition to the existing 24-7 security booth guarding the property, Village Farms would also install a security fence with motion detectors around the one-acre greenhouse as well as a multitude of security cameras, said Furfaro.
“There are going to be so many cameras that there is not an inch of the facility that is not going to be covered every moment in time by a video feed,” said Furfaro.
Greenhouse walls would be opaque for further protection, and transparent ceilings would have shatterproof glass. Hays, who will submit architectural renderings of the entire operation as a part of Village Farms medical cannabis application, said they would also work to prevent light pollution if additional grow lights were needed at night.
A dispensary and sales location is also planned for the site, said Hays. A small public road would be built in order for patients to drive in and fill prescriptions. By law, Village Farms would be limited to distribution sites within a day’s drive of the Marfa greenhouse.
“We would be able to, if the communities are interested, set up sales locations in each community and as far away as Odessa,” said Hays.
In order for that supply chain to work, the area will need doctors registered with DPS’s TCUP program to give out medical marijuana prescriptions. Hays said moving forward, underserved rural Texans deserve access to medical cannabis, which acts as an effective alternative to medications such as highly-addictive opioids.
“Rural Texas does not have the same access to healthcare as most of the state, and there is no access to medical cannabis here at all,” said Hays. “That’s not fair. It can have really great effects for some people.”
Current legislation would also simplify the process of adding more conditions to the list of TCUP qualifiers by giving the authority to the Texas Department of State Health Services rather than requiring a change in the law. The majority of Texans, or 82%, are in favor of making marijuana legal for a wider range of medical purposes with a prescription, according to a February 2023 poll conducted by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston.
Hays, who operates a hop and hemp farm in Alpine and has been lobbying on cannabis issues at the state level since 2017, recently ran for agriculture commissioner on a platform of more sensible cannabis laws. She said the state’s laws and conservative politics have led to the under-developed medical cannabis market that has resulted in a lack of access for patients and high prices.
“We have this leadership in the state, it’s extremely conservative and likes to think of themselves as tough, but they really haven’t engaged in what it means to regulate cannabis,” said Hays. “They want to slow boat it, but you can’t slow boat it when the world is changing so quickly around you.”
Texas is the only state which regulates medical marijuana through law enforcement rather than a public health agency. In other states with more robust medical marijuana programs, around 4% of the population typically enrolls, said Hays, and Texas was way behind on serving that level of patients.
According to the DPS website, 50,000 patients have utilized TCUP since its inception in 2015. The Texas Tribune recently reported that the program actively serves around 10,000 to 12,000 participants.
“Texas ought to have a million patients, not 10,000 or 50,000,” said Hays.
While there are currently only three licensed medical cannabis producers in the state of Texas, the 2015 Texas Compassionate Use Act states “issuance or renewal of the license is necessary to ensure reasonable statewide access,” and a previous study conducted by DPS concluded that 12 providers were needed to adequately cover the state.
Since 2015, license applications have only opened up twice: once in 2017, when the existing three were awarded, and in January 2023.
Applications for the new second round are due in late April, and Village Farms expects to hear if they are awarded a license late this summer or early fall, according to Hays. It is not known how many licenses DPS intends to give out, and the application process is highly detailed and competitive, said Hays, requiring not only architectural plans, but a projected two-year budget, inventory tracking system, waste management plans and more.
“I think they’re gonna get like 200 applications,” said Hays. “Every major cannabis company in the country is applying.”