Gardener’s Supply Founder Will Raap on How to Cultivate the Cannabis Market | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Gardener’s Supply Founder Will Raap on How to Cultivate the Cannabis Market

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Will Raap - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Will Raap

Will Raap moved to Burlington in 1980 to work for Garden Way. Just three years later, he started his own business, Gardener's Supply, in a former carpet factory in Winooski. In 1986, Raap relocated Gardener's Supply to the Burlington side of the river, on a piece of land in the Intervale.

Raap built his business at the site of an old slaughterhouse on property he leased from dairy farmer Rena Caulkins. A dump was behind her house; a car junkyard occupied land that would soon become the Intervale Community Farm, other organic farms, and greenhouses.

"You wouldn't go down there after dark," Raap recalled of the Intervale at that time. "It was the wrong side of town."

Today, the Intervale is an agricultural and recreational hub in Burlington with numerous organic farms and a network of trails for walking and biking.

"I always wanted to create a catalyst," Raap said. "My original [interest] was community development. I really had an interest in a business that fostered that point of view."

From early on, Raap allocated a share of profits to employees; the company became fully employee owned in 2009.

From its inception, Gardener's sold grow lights and organic fertilizers.

"We had a contingent of people, some of our customers, come in with cash and no address they wanted to give us, and they were cannabis growers," Raap said. "Back then, grow lights and organic fertilizers — the best cannabis growers would be using those."

Nearly four decades later, Vermont is set to establish a regulated and taxed cannabis industry. Raap, now 71, talked to Seven Days about how to cultivate that market.

SEVEN DAYS: What do you think Vermont lost in the cannabis industry when neighboring states beat it to legal sales of recreational pot?

WILL RAAP: When I was in high school, in the '60s, [cannabis] was very risky, very illegal, but I was in California, so it was pretty available. And the center of the U.S. [market], maybe even the Americas, was the Emerald Triangle in northern California, where the cannabis industry thrived — partly because the growing conditions were good, partly because it was remote, partly because it was a cultural phenomenon and partly because there was a degree of leniency in law enforcement there.

The East Coast center on innovation and excellence in cannabis production was Vermont.

Vermont was ahead of the game because there was a constituency here that said, "We've been doing this for a generation or two. We're already earning our incomes from this industry, already leaders in our industry in growing cannabis at home."

A lot of that constituency was advocating to be one of the first on the East Coast to legalize adult recreational use. I'm talking hundreds or thousands of people who made their living out of growing cannabis in Vermont. We lost the potential of taking that 50 years of groundswell and opportunity [and] releasing it in an East Coast cannabis center for excellence. I think Vermont lost a huge advantage.

On the other hand, I think the caution around making sure kids don't have inappropriate access, and making sure drivers don't drive under the influence, is a good thing.

The [opportunity] is the same as it always is for Vermont agriculture: We'll never be a commodity success story; we'll never produce commodity milk in the competitive market place. Whether you're moving from sheep to cows to cannabis, you have to be small-scale, highly branded, unique and innovative. You have to do what Vermont is doing to be the No. 1 per capita grower of local food. Engagement of the consumer to want to support the working landscape and small farming ... Vermont hasn't lost [that].

SD: One of your interests and priorities is a cannabis industry that's on a scale appropriate to Vermont: small and local. Do you think the law's limit of one license (growing, manufacturing or sales) per new licensee will mitigate the possibility of out-of-state corporations controlling a significant portion of the market? What ideas do you have to help ensure a local market?

WR: If having enough money to build a business matters, which it does, and if a head start and a duopoly matter, which they do, then those five [current medical marijuana] license holders will [have] a huge advantage.

They also have a commodity mindset, so they are not going to do it the Vermont way. They have not done it the Vermont way. They have not opened up to transparency and small-scale opportunities and ownership spread among Vermonters.

The other half of the legalization parade will be all the license holders that are authorized to start six months after legalization is authorized for the five vertical license holders. [Vertical licenses are known as integrated licenses in Vermont. They will only be available to the state's five medical marijuana license holders. The integrated license will allow them to engage in five different aspects of the adult-use industry, including growing, manufacturing and sales.]

Smart people will, from today until October 2022, be organizing to try to figure out how to bring the efficiencies of a vertical license to compete against those five existing vertical licenses.

I think the legislature should not allow outside money: 51 percent-plus of any capital coming into a Vermont marijuana business must come from a Vermont address. Our consumers want that authenticity.

SD: You recently met with a group of Vermont business people, including some in agriculture, to talk about a possible cannabis collaboration, an offshoot of a group you were part of five years ago — the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative. Do you expect a formal group to form? If so, what priorities and initiatives will you focus on?

WR: We're trying to build a Vermont Botanical Commons and branding [the] framework around all of these emerging botanicals [such as barley, wheat, rye, medicinal and culinary herbs]. And we'll add to that hemp and cannabis.

All these grains and crops need high-quality soil, access to water, and ideally an organic and regenerative point of view in how they're grown. They need harvesting and processing capacity, drying capacity, extraction and testing capacity, manufacturing capacity. We could develop a cooperative structure to do this.

We came to an agreement to try to raise a fund of $5 million plus to advance a Vermont Botanical Commons on an old dairy that needs to be renovated — and to use that fund to also help capitalize businesses that could become part of that regenerative farm.

We've got three locations in play right now: one in Middlesex, one in Richmond and one in Charlotte [at Nordic Farms].

There's a certain urgency now. There will be smart people planning for October 2022 and how they might be able to get one or more licenses in the cannabis world. If we already have a facility, generating capital from other botanicals, and it already has a retail operation [it could facilitate and complement adding cannabis to the venture].

SD: You established the nonprofit Intervale Center in 1988, an effort that involved reclaiming agricultural land by the Winooski River and creating a local food hub in the north end of Burlington. Do you think a similar model — incubator farms, shared resources, affordable farmland — would work for cannabis farming? Is the Intervale a viable location?

WR: No, it's not. We're fully employing it for growing Burlington's fresh food. That was our goal.

At the Intervale, we created a structure that became the parent and host for dozens of farms, but also for shared business incubation capacity: refrigeration, tractors, compost, irrigation.

That's exactly what we are envisioning can happen at Vermont Botanical Commons. We can do that by repurposing an old, declining farm. For the last four years, we've reviewed about 10 dairies that we might move this idea to, just like we did with Rena Caulkins' farm [at the Intervale]: refurbish the farmstead, build barns, buy equipment, and make it available on a lease basis to people who could come in and farm the land.

You're talking about a 600-acre farm: 200 acres of grain, 20 acres of hops, 50 acres of culinary and medicinal herbs, 100 acres of hemp, 10 acres of cannabis, and five acres of solar array.

The whole vision here is, how do we develop the next generation of agriculture in Vermont?

SD: Do you remember the first time you smoked pot? What did you think of it?

WR: I was a junior in high school, and I was in a Volkswagen bus with [friends]. We were scared to death. We all ducked down on the floor of the microbus driving to Haight Ashbury from Fremont, which was 30 miles away.

It was scary; it was really scary. And it was ditch weed. We didn't get very high. It wasn't like my life was transformed and I thought, I need to do this a lot.

SD: What's the best growing environment for cannabis: indoors or outdoors?

WR: What's the purpose? If you're talking about use, which is about flower [to smoke], the best flower is going to come from indoor grows.

If you're talking about edibles or tinctures, cannabinoids are cannabinoids. Whether you grow them indoors or outdoors, it doesn't make that much difference.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Cannabis Market | A conversation with Gardener's Supply founder Will Raap"