On a late-summer evening at 5:15, people mingle under a canopy of trees as daylight begins to fade. They stand in line to enter a wooden A-frame building with “Theory Wellness” emblazoned in brushed aluminum, the lettering large enough to be seen from the street. The parking lot is abuzz. The vintage Triumph convertible with New York plates pulling out onto Route 7 is immediately replaced by a Honda with Massachusetts plates.
As the crow flies, it’s an eight-mile journey due south from this Great Barrington cannabis dispensary, following the Housatonic River, to Sheffield where a healthy crop of marijuana is leafing out at Equinox Farm. Two acres of immature plants with the unmistakable leaf of ganja, weed, Mary Jane, pot, marijuana—however you name it—are being tended by guy with the weathered, lean look of one who is in sync with the elements.
“The earth is where marijuana comes from. It’s nothing new,” says Ted Dobson.
For the last three and half decades, Dobson has been tied to rhythms of nature, growing and selling baby greens wholesale in New York and Massachusetts.Late last year, he sold some of his property and replaced his 23-day growing cycle of signature salad greens with a six-month growing cycle of legal marijuana. “Theory Wellness is my partner,” says Dobson, who was introduced by a mutual acquaintance. “It’s a complex relationship.”
Dobson has rented two acres of his farm to Theory. The company built the infrastructure and invested the capital to make it a legal enterprise with greenhouses, data collection, fertilizers, and seedlings raised in Theory’s indoor facility in Bridgewater.
“I’m on the hook for cultivation,” says Dobson. “Whatever I produce, I get a certain amount per pound of the useable biomass.”
At its height, when Dobson was growing mesclun, it was selling for $23 a pound to the likes of Daniel Boulud and other chefs at Union Square. “That was good, but $750 per pound for marijuana is better,” Dobson says.
The Sheffield resident, who chooses to ride a bike rather than drive a car, and who calls himself a “soil geek,” petitioned Sheffield’s Planning Board three years ago for a zoning variance to grow marijuana. When that was eventually approved, Theory petitioned the Cannabis Control Commission for license to grow marijuana outdoors. When the license was provisionally granted, Theory became one of only two legal pot companies with permission to grow the plant outdoors.
It was great news for the founders of Theory and for Dobson, giving the start-up a big advantage over the competition. The only problem was that it was late July—well into growing season—when the license was officially granted.
But the late timing didn’t dissuade Dobson, who discovered his natural ability as a farmer years ago when he and a friend made a discover after they came upon marijuana from Mexico.
“The weed came with seeds,” says Dobson. “There wasn’t a lot of literature on the topic, but I managed to get some plants to grow. I felt so deeply that it was wrong that you could make a plant illegal.”
Although the journey from seed to germination to flower is not unknown to Dobson, transplanting 2,400 plants weaned on electric lights and liquid nutrients to his loamy soil on Bow Wow Road was a first.
“I’ll be fully engaged in such a way to do proper pollination and begin to dial in varietals that make sense for this soil next season,” he says.
The fast track Dobson and his plants are on reflect the speed of change in the industry. It was only in November that Massachusetts became one of 12 states where the sale of marijuana became legal.
For Theory Wellness, taking on an industry that analysts project to earn $50 billion to $100 billion in a decade requires collaboration with people that can respond to change and stay focused on a dynamic and highly competitive business climate. According to Theory CFO Nick Friedman, the industry is not for the faint of heart.
“The thing many people, including analysts and investment advisors, are missing is that because cannabis is still considered a controlled substance, the IRS does not allow business write-offs,” says Friedman, who hasn’t had a day off all summer. The 30-year-old Sheffield native says the combination of a punishing tax rate and competition from all angles also makes it necessary to work without consultants.
“We are a small-batch grow house,” says Friedman. “That means there is irregularity in the product. We must keep a close watch on production, and sometimes there are variances in availability. Almost all of our product is created by us in Bridgewater, and keeping the product on shelves is a full-time job.”
Friedman founded Theory Wellness with Brandon Pollack. The pair had a string of entrepreneurial successes and became interested in the growing and selling of pot after it became legal in California. Around the same time, Friedman’s father became paralyzed after a ski accident. He became Theory’s first medical marijuana patient.
“Benno Friedman found relief from pain from CBD and regained movement,” says his son. “He was the inspiration for the company to bring access to patients.”
According to Friedman, more than 20,000 patients have experienced relief from pain from the Theory’s medical dispensaries in Great Barrington and Bridgewater.
Back at Dobson’s farm, Ted walks past the area dedicated to soil-grown plants for Theory.
“Hello my lovely,” Dobson says to a pot plant that is about the size of a Christmas tree. “Take a look.” He holds one of the branches and shakes it. Bursting with bright green leaves, the fragrant bush has the tell-tale leaf shape and strong scent of cannabis, so recently illicit in the state. The brave new world of legal pot in Massachusetts takes a bit of getting used to, but this farmer been ready for years.