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With legalization come hopes that cannabis could be a lucrative crop in New Jersey

New Jerseyans overwhelmingly approved the recreational use of marijuana, and that could reshape the state’s agriculture from tomatoes to THC.

Shamong Mayor Michael Di Croce talks with George Cluff, who recently purchased a 15-acre farm in the township to grow flowers for retail sale. Di Croce hopes to convince farmers that newly legalized recreational marijuana is a good growing opportunity.
Shamong Mayor Michael Di Croce talks with George Cluff, who recently purchased a 15-acre farm in the township to grow flowers for retail sale. Di Croce hopes to convince farmers that newly legalized recreational marijuana is a good growing opportunity.Read moreFrank Kummer / Staff

It was no surprise to Michael Di Croce when New Jersey voters approved a referendum Tuesday allowing anyone 21 and older to smoke marijuana recreationally.

For two years, Di Croce, the mayor of Shamong Township, Burlington County, has been pitching his Pinelands community as a potential marijuana epicenter in anticipation of legalization. His goal was to use the resulting revenue to lower local property taxes and maybe even build a community center with an Olympic size pool.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Di Croce said of the vote. “Farmers … have been struggling for a long time.”

Someone has to grow all that weed, Di Croce knows, and he’d like a lot of it grown in Shamong. Because marijuana is illegal at the federal level, it can’t be transported across state lines. So Di Croce sees the potential.

Yet who will be able to grow cannabis, how and where, is still anyone’s guess since laws need to be crafted to tackle a host of issues surrounding legalization. Added to that are broader questions like whether a community that prides itself on being family friendly will want to offer apple picking next to a pot farm.

Di Croce, a Republican, said he is speaking for himself, not the township committee, with the push for pot. He outlined a plan in 2018, saying he believed legalization would create 100 new jobs and help fund schools, while keeping the town’s rural vibe. Shamong is ideal for producing and warehousing cannabis and hemp, he says.

“A good farmer might find a crop where they can make a $20,000 profit on an acre of land,” Di Croce, an attorney, wrote in 2018. But there is no other crop where a one-acre plot, he estimated, could bring in millions. He envisions farms devoting half its space to weed, and the rest to native fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

“So, we still get awesome Jersey corn and tomatoes,” he wrote, “and we encourage the use of all of our farms.”

Development in Shamong is extremely limited because it lies within the protective borders of the Pinelands National Reserve and state Pinelands Commission regulation. But, Di Croce said, pot producers would get access to the 17-trillion gallon Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer for irrigation.

He’s looking for 10 “first class producers” to come to town to grow, package and ship marijuana. He envisions the greenhouse producers hiring at least 10 people each, and establishing relationships with local farmers, following, for example, the model of Perdue and poultry farmers in Delaware.

Though others might share Di Croce’s enthusiasm, Pete Furey, spokesman for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, said farmers are cautious because so much is unknown.

Farmers, he said, do not want marijuana grown openly like soybeans, because people might sneak onto fields to poach pot, leaving farmers to figure out security and manage potential safety risks.

“We’re much too small a state and there’s just a raft of safety issues,” Furey said.

Further, farmers have cultivated family-friendly, agritourism, he added.

» READ MORE: N.J. farmers fear big solar arrays will cause thousands of acres of prime land to vanish

“We don’t want any disturbance to farms that pull in families for weekend trips to the country to buy produce, take hayrides, or pick apples," Furey said. “We don’t want to see anything happen to the ambience of that experience.”

Furey said marijuana greenhouses are an option since they can be secured. Another issue: Farm workers would have to be at least 21, a crimp given that plenty of workers, including the children of farmers, are underage.

Farmers could embrace marijuana growing “if and when the legal and economic opportunities align,” but he said “there is nothing inevitable about it here.”

Still, Furey said there might be promise.

“Never underestimate the entrepreneurial spirit of farmers,” Furey said.

New Jersey does have a medical marijuana industry in place that farmers can look to for guidance, and the state has created a Cannabis Regulatory Commission, but has not yet appointed members.

» READ MORE: New Jersey has legalized weed. Here’s why Pa. may take a different path.

Adam Goers, a vice president at Columbia Care, a large, publicly traded marijuana company, already has medical marijuana operations in Vineland, Cumberland County. There are currently 100,000 medical marijuana users in the state medical marijuana program.

"The region’s been growing agricultural products for hundreds of years,' Goers said. “It’s really well positioned to be a leader in marijuana cultivation and processing.”

Goers said it’s likely any recreational production would be indoors, in greenhouses and warehouses. He said indoor cultivation produces better quality cannabis. Columbia Care plans plans to work with the city and state to extend production for recreational marijuana.

Back in Shamong, Mayor Di Croce agrees greenhouses are the way to go. He took a walk Friday to a farm across the street from his law office to chat with its new owner — and pitch the prospect of growing hemp or marijuana. George Cuff, who recently purchased the 15-acre parcel to grow flowers and plants for retail, pulled in with his truck next to where is building a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse.

But Cuff said he had no interest in growing marijuana there. The greenhouse will nurture mums. But Cuff told the mayor he uses a CBD oil for his knees and swears by it. So, he said, he might be open to leasing land to a hemp farmer.

“It’s not what I’m about,” Cuff said of farming weed, “Not that I’m against it though.”

Staff Writer Sam Wood contributed to this report.