Cannabis Journeys: Sayra Small, a Cultivator Rock Star

In January, 2018, I visited Sayra Small, one of the three cultivators of Farley’s Cannabis Farm in Woolwich, Maine. I had met her in November of 2017 at the East Coast Cannabis Conference in Portland, Maine where she won second place for her cannabis. I wanted to interview an accomplished female cultivator.

When I arrived at her place on January 3rd, it was a bright sunny day and the landscape—house, barn, cars, trees—was covered in a white carpet of snow from a recent storm. Sayra came outside to greet me wearing mirrored sunglasses, a plaid flannel scarf wrapped around her head, sweatpants, a tie-dye t-shirt, and flip flops. It was probably 35 degrees and she looked ready for both winter and summer. After a few minutes I had a feeling she could handle any environment thrown at her.

Sayra was once a peer specialist helping people in drug addiction recovery. When her parents invited her to join their cannabis farm, life took an unexpected turn. Now, beyond her wildest dreams, she is an award-winning cannabis cultivator and caregiver.

Here follows our conversation.

You’ve become a farmer for real.

Yeah, we don’t mess around! We have fifty rotating strains. Strains have different things they do well. Gigabud is great for arthritis. LA Cheese is 90% indica and great for PTSD. People go to great lengths to find a strain when it works. Sometimes it’s not just the strain, but the phenome of the plant that matters.

What’s a phenome?

For example, let’s say I get ten Gigabud seeds from a plant. Six are male so I give them away to whoever wants to breed. I’ll name the female seeds of Gigabud #1, #2, #3, #4. Each seed will take different traits just like we do from our parents. So, if you grow another Gigabud plant, it may not work because it has to have the right traits. For patients with very specific needs, it’s maddening.

Through trial and error we figure out what’ll work for a client. But there’s so many nuances between strains, and our bodies are each so different, and as kids grow their needs change. Even adults have to change strains as their bodies get used to it. It’s important to keep records of strain traits and reviews from patients. It’s also important to study seeds.

That’s what scares me about recreational cannabis that’s coming. In this regulated market the dispensaries don’t do that kind of trial and error tracking with patients. You can imagine parents often have no idea what they’re doing when they’re buying in a dispensary for their kids. Dispensaries are basically recreational stores – ‘how do you like to get high?' It’s not about wellness. You can’t get a special formulation at a dispensary. You buy what they have. A lot of them don’t offer FECO—full extra cannabis oil—which is what cancer patients often need.

Medicinally whole plant extracts are what works best. And distilled oils. When big business comes in, they’re going to have more standard products. A standard THC tincture, CBD tincture, etc. They’re not going to customize either.

Maine’s cannabis industry is known for it’s caregiver system.

Yeah, there’s about 3,000 caregivers. Sadly, probably 2,000 don’t have the experience to stay viable when recreational comes. People say they’re caregivers, then set up lights and grow weed without much thought. But it’s not really medicine. The reason they’re here is because we’re still in a prohibitionist market.

I would say Maine has one of the best medical programs in the country, if not the best. It’s been around since 1999. Our pediatric program is great. Right now, children who need medicine are allowed to use cannabis in school. And patients can grow for themselves. We have caregivers— not all states do. That’s at risk with legalization.

I’d love to see this industry benefit Mainers. Maine is very low income. We’ve lost a lot of mills, shipyards, the Navy base in Brunswick. But Mainers have been left out. Four of the eight dispensaries in the state are owned by the Wellness Connection, which is an out-of-state business. Only one is owned by people from Maine. That whole monopoly of one entity getting four of the licenses means they’re more expensive and have lower quality weed. Actually, a lot of out-of-staters flood our Instagrams and newsfeeds with free offers. They should try to make a connection here first before pushing their business.

According to Maine regulations, caregivers can only have six plants for six patients, including yourself. How is that?

That regulation indirectly made us craft growers. When you’re limited to thirty-six plants, you’re careful with each one. How can I maximize space and water? What’s the fan current for the best condition? Literally it comes down to fractions to figure it out. I wring everything I can out of these plants.

How is working with your parents?

This business is so cut-throat, but with them I never worry. The cut-throat environment is pretty new, like the past year or so. When the green rush came, everybody had dollar signs in their eyes. Now everybody realizes the only people who will become millionaires are the big corporations that come in. When you’re kept at thirty-six plants as a caregiver, there’s only so much you can make. Now people are going to have 10-30,000 square-foot green houses to grow tens of thousands of pounds. Is it going to be the best weed? No. But it’s going to be cheap. It’s about educating the consumer so they know where the best is grown.

[I]t’s scary. If you don’t have an exit plan, you’re already too late. We’d stay but we could sell too. Or what could happen is big business comes around and everyone goes back underground. I know a lot of people that are going back to grow on the black market because they don’t have money for the regulations and the licenses. They can still make a living selling to a few people and are under less scrutiny. People are saying I’m safer being a caregiver, than being a small business. Maybe they’re right. Who knows.

You were a heroin addict. Did cannabis help you get clean?

The only thing that helped my addiction was changing my life.

I see so many people saying cannabis is going to save all the addicts. No, it’s not. If that could happen, methadone would have saved them already. Cannabis can be used as a tool, but with my recovery background, and being a peer support specialist for years, I learned drugs aren’t the problem. Life is the problem. People have to deal with the trauma, get life skills, change the coping mechanisms they’ve developed. There are cannabis rehabs that don’t even have doctors, no support specialists, no peers. That’s just detox.

I was a heroin addict when I found out I was eight weeks pregnant. The doctor said I had to go on Subutex. I had no choice. My son 100% saved my life. I’m lucky. My parents are very active in my life and I have a lot of support. But what about the women who don’t? My dream was to create a peer system for pregnant women to help guide them. Lots of women get clean when they’re pregnant because they get more social services.

When I came out in the cannabis industry I lost friends in the recovery activist world. People said I was delusional to be working with drugs again. I say recovery is recovery. If standing on your head helps you recover, do it. You’re alive.

How is Maine doing on equity?

Maine is not making an effort to bring in women and people of color, or even people from Maine. I’ve tried to access trade organizations but instead we have [to] pay to meet. I’ve met some badass women pulling the reins, but I thought there’d be more of us. I keep looking in the shadows and not finding them! Most are admins or reps. There is a group out west called Supernova Cannabis. It’s for women of color opening up their own businesses, being the CEOs, the cultivators. They’re ensuring they have power. I love it.

I hate it when I see homophobia. The LGBT community and HIV activists brought us medical and recreational. They went to jail, they pushed, they fought. We’re being capitalized now by white men, but it was brought up through the LGBT community and black people who paid the price for years.

Because there aren’t many women who actually do the cultivating and the strain selection, I’ve had people high up tell me that if I want to get rich I could get a magazine or something. I just want to make sure my family is ok. Maybe if it was twenty years ago and they got me then, I’d be a cultivator rock star!

About the author: Christine Giraud, a writer in Boston, has become fascinated with the cannabis industry, as well as the culture, politics and history around it.

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