Editorial: Is marijuana the next big North Fork crop?

The idea of the North Fork as home to a wide array of vineyards may have seemed far-fetched more than a half-century ago, when potato farmers ruled the land. 

Agriculture on the North Fork continues to evolve. Vineyards, for all their popularity, are rarely huge money-makers. Buying land to start a vineyard in 2018 is a far more costly proposition than it was over 40 years ago, when the local industry was born.

It was Louisa Hargrave and her then-husband, Alex, who had the vision back then to begin planting vitis vinifera grapes on the North Fork. So it’s not surprising that Ms. Hargrave would be one of the first voices to begin a discussion of the North Fork’s agricultural future — specifically as it relates to marijuana.

Howard Zucker, health commissioner of New York State, recently announced he would issue a recommendation to legalize the drug for recreational use in the state. Medical marijuana is already legal here, and a dispensary has operated in Riverhead for the past two years.

Could marijuana now become the next big crop on the North Fork?

Ms. Hargrave, who raised the issue at a Southold Town alcohol farm products working group meeting, urged town and agricultural industry leaders to pay attention: It appears the countdown toward legalized marijuana in New York has begun. 

And that could mean big dollars on the North Fork — perhaps more than even the most successful winery can imagine.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, a Democrat, expressed optimism about the future of recreational marijuana as it relates to agriculture here, saying that she supports anything that allows farms to be sustainable and economically viable.

Many questions remain, however, particularly regarding the regulations that would undoubtedly follow and the possibility that a new industry could attract a flood of high-rolling investors seeking to capitalize on it. 

Consider the situation unfolding in Canada, where recreational marijuana is scheduled to become legal later this year. 

The New York Times, in an article this week, described it as the country’s “new gold rush.” 

“A financial boom not seen since the dot-com mania of the late 1990s has overtaken Canada,” the article states, going on to say that marijuana would be regulated similarly to cigarettes.

“Marijuana growers have plowed millions into investments that, without having recorded profits yet, have stock-market values measured in billions,” the Times wrote.

Whether that becomes more bust than boom remains to be seen. Agricultural leaders on the North Fork will certainly be watching. 

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