As regulators work to launch New York’s cannabis industry, the state’s farm and orchard owners are thinking through how their existing businesses and properties can evolve to fit. One of those farm owners? Kevin S. Bright.
Bright is the executive producer of Friends, which ran for 10 seasons between 1994 and 2004, one of the most watched television series of all time.
Cannabis Wire examined the latest lobbying disclosures in New York and reached out to Bright after finding that Mercury Public Affairs registered to lobby on his behalf on “issues related to marijuana farming.” Bright and his wife, Claudia Wilsey Bright, currently own about 400 acres of farmland near Saratoga in upstate New York. They currently produce maple syrup and are eyeing ways to turn their farmland into a cannabis agritourism business, the Brights told Cannabis Wire.
The Brights are not alone. An analysis of lobbying disclosures in New York reveals other owners of agricultural businesses, from apple orchards to berry farms, who are thinking deeply about the state’s legal cannabis industry.
(This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: Kevin and Claudia, my first question is a broad one. What are you working on with regard to cannabis in New York? And is cannabis something you’ve been thinking about for a long time, or is this a more recent evolution?
Kevin Bright: It all starts with our family history in the Greenville Center area, which is just outside of Saratoga. Claudia’s family has had property in this area for over 100 years. And when Claudia’s parents passed on, we inherited the property and started developing 60 acres with a new home, and developing some of the farmland that was around the property. And then over the years, about another 300 acres had become available. And we were concerned about development kind of overtaking our pristine farm area. We were also concerned about preserving farmland in upstate New York. So we started purchasing and now our property is up to a little over 400 acres.
Considering this wonderful place and looking at the horizon for New York state and medical and recreational legalization of marijuana, we saw an opportunity to start to develop the land in a new way that would be beneficial to the community in upstate New York, provide jobs and also create potentially a new kind of tourism, similar to Napa Valley. So there’s all kinds of potential that we see in the cannabis production in New York state, and we’re also happy that New York is doing it the right way.
Claudia Wilsey Bright: This property is literally in my blood. I was born and raised on the property, and my family goes back several generations. And my father was a farmer, he was a struggling chicken farmer. And it’s very important to me to see people benefit from farming and being able to bring that into their lives and be successful with it.
In terms of cannabis, several years ago, maybe eight years ago, we approached UCLA and spoke to them about their research into cannabis in terms of the medicinal benefits, which we strongly believe in. And at that time, they kind of looked at us like we were crazy. Well, then about five years later, they came to us and said, ‘OK, we’re ready.’’
Kevin Bright: We’re a founding donor of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative. Obviously, our beliefs in this are not just recreational. We can feel Big Pharma shaking in their boots a little bit about a treatment for many of the things that ails us that can be grown in our own home.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: Why did you decide to plant roots in New York, and not in California, where you’re also based?
Kevin Bright: California, while it’s been a leader in cannabis, one might say, in the areas of legalization, there were a lot of things that were not thought through properly in launching legalization in California. For one thing, the regulation has not been what it should be. The bootlegging and selling illegally here has really turned the industry a little bit upside down. And I think also the launching of the medical aspect of it in California was also not properly run. No quality control, no consistency, and also no education, which is the most important part of it.
You’d go to a medical dispensary and you’d try to describe the ailment that you’re having. And basically, you have somebody on the other side that only has recreational experience and can’t begin to tell you how to properly apply cannabis in a medicinal way.
We like what’s going on in New York State. I’m a born and raised Manhattanite, Claudia is born and raised in New York. You know, I still root for the Knicks. We see this as an opportunity to kind of come back home again.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: If I’m watching basketball, I’m still a tired Knicks fan. The Knicks of my youth hooked me, so I totally get it.
Tell me more about your vision for your farm. Four hundred acres is obviously a sizable plot. What’s currently being grown or produced on your farm, and are you planning to fully crop convert, or maybe split things?
Kevin Bright: Four hundred acres is a lot, but there’s farms that are a lot bigger than ours. And I think the number one priority in looking at this is preserving farmland in upstate New York. It’s very important. There is farmland shrinking around the country for various reasons, some of it relating to solar farming, some of it relating to financial issues. We need our farms. It’s not just about cannabis, it’s about eating. So preserving the farmland was our first consideration. And then seeing a new opportunity to provide employment and revenue into upstate New York in Greenfield Center, and ultimately with plans around education, agritourism.
We’re not going to be the only farm doing this, probably, in upstate New York. I don’t know where the others will be, but there could be a part of this that relates to the Napa Valley. There’s a tremendous amount of tourism, visiting wineries. And I think there would be the same amount of interest visiting cannabis production farms. And also, I think there can be an educational component around it in so many ways. Medical conferences, to discuss applications, could be held on these farms, studies, developing effective dosage for various ailments, can happen on these farms. So, I think what’s exciting about it is getting into an industry in the very beginning and hopefully being able to form some of the policies of that industry going forward in a positive way.
Claudia Wilsey Bright: We are currently farming. We have a maple syrup farm. Some of the property that we have purchased to expand our property was an existing maple syrup farm that has been in operation for decades. Very old school, it worked on gravity.
Kevin Bright: Last year we produced 150 gallons of maple syrup. So it was our biggest year.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: I’m thinking about Saratoga, which I covered for a little while while working for a daily newspaper upstate, and the tourism draw of the racetrack, of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the Spa State Park. There’s a lot. Are you planning to tap into the Saratoga scene?
Kevin Bright: When you start talking about your business affecting others, that’s community planning and working together to decide how cannabis impacts the local community. So you’re talking about it from a couple of different standpoints, which is, obviously, tourism brings more people, brings more revenue. The people who might be coming for agro tourism may be very different people than are coming to the track. So that would be a total increase in numbers. And how does that impact the community? We hear many people in Saratoga over the summer complain about the track all the time, even though it brings the majority of the business to Saratoga and Saratoga is kind of dependent on it. People complain about the traffic. People complain about the number of people. So these are things that all have to be taken into consideration as you integrate a new business into a community.
We take it seriously too, there’s nothing frivolous about pot. It should be treated and considered in the same way that alcohol is, I believe. And in that vein, the other potential boost to the local community is taxing it. That to me is the greatest potential to our entire country. I would bet you that if marijuana was legal right now, and federally taxed like alcohol, we could pay for this infrastructure bill in a snap. So, part of what we have to start thinking about is not looking at this as something that destroys the community, but something that actually uplifts the community and supports the community.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: The definition of equity in New York is really interesting to me, especially as someone who grew up near quite a few farms. “Distressed farmers” qualify, for example, along with women and veteran-owned businesses. I’m curious, how are you all thinking about equity as you’re building out this new venture?
Claudia Wilsey Bright: I think that is one of the most appealing pieces of the legislation, to me personally, having grown up there with a distressed farmer. And, equity is extremely important to me. I moved from Saratoga, from Greenfield Center, to Los Angeles. It’s quite a dichotomy, shall we say, in lifestyle, and it’s just very, very important to me to give back. And, you know, we’ve been blessed, but to give back to the community I came from, because that’s who I am, it’s a very strong piece of what we want to do.
Kevin Bright: It’s an example of what social justice should really look like, to take something that was the source of a lot of pain, to certain groups more than others — far more people of color have been arrested in connection with cannabis — and turn it around and say, okay, those who had paid the greatest price will take the greatest benefit from this. And I think that’s a wonderful way to contextualize cannabis in New York state.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: The deadline for localities to opt out of some commercial cannabis activities is December 31. Are you talking to local officials yet to gain support or perhaps educate them? Or are you talking to other farmers about their plans?
Kevin Bright: We’re starting to talk to local officials and gather support. And honestly, it’s new land and we’re trying to, like many other people, get the lay of it. Our approach to it is about the long run, not about a money grab opportunity. And it is something that we see with the potential to reinvigorate the property that we’ve invested in and reinvigorate the community that we’re a part of.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: As you know, I decided to reach out to you all after coming across a lobbying report. What are your cannabis-related lobbying priorities?
Kevin Bright: Another part of this is support and funding opportunities for a brand new industry. And unfortunately, as long as the federal classification of cannabis stands where it is, banks cannot support this new industry. So I would say the greatest single advance we need to make is to be able to tap into the financing resources that every other business has available to them.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: Alright, I saved this one, but I have to ask. I’m of an age where Friends had a pretty big impact on my youth, and there’s clearly a resurgence of interest now. Are you planning for any part of your cannabis venture to intersect with Friends? You know, The One Where the Friends Producer Grows Cannabis?
Kevin Bright: One of my favorite episodes of all time is The One Where Ross Gets High. So obviously we as the producers of Friends have always been friendly to the cannabis world and have presented it in a good light. So I just hope to be able to continue to do that as a member of the industry going forward.