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Is Large-Scale Hemp Farming In Our Future?


Five nights ago, we did something astonishing. It’s astonishing because we only have 35% of Americans vaccinated and an economic recovery isn’t certain.

But we can’t help the timing. Suddenly, the farm at the end of our four-farm road came for sale. We all trooped over there Monday night and with carloads of people arriving to see it, we put down an offer at the asking price.

Sister Quinn said, “You summoned this farm to us, remember? You said, ‘I’m tired of running a small operation’ and here you go. A twenty-acre farm right down the street.”

For the past forty-eight hours, I have been running between my sewing machine in the kitchen and my office, sewing new bibs for the sunset service Saturday night, and sewing support at my desk for reasonable financing.

And the vibe on the farm these days washes pleasant memories into my mind of a childhood visit for two weeks way up in Northern Wisconsin, on a farm where there was no radio, no tv, just three unmarried brothers and a widowed sister running a large farm. The evenings were quiet. Conversation was minimal and produced quietly, with a calm purpose. Bunny, my cousin, was age six and I was age seven, and we were so far from civilization that we were allowed to go about the farm and the farm-house in shorts only. On very hot days, just our undershorts. That was so unseemly, so radical, and so wonderful to me. We fed the chickens every morning in just our under-panties and our shoes.

The summer heat in Wisconsin is a hot, never-lets-up, middle-of-the-night 105 degrees and humid just like three in the afternoon, kind of heat. It’s not like that here in the central valley of California.

The mornings here on the farm in California have been chilly enough that the houses stay cool with only fans and the breeze until nearly two p.m. Around fifteen minutes of the temperature in the main rooms hitting eighty degrees and one or another of the pre- or post-menopausal women notice and quickly shut things up and get the air blowing.

Sister Alice was a news junky and Sister Sierra was a reality TV junky and so every day at 4 p.m., the tv went on in the living room while June cooked us dinner nearby. Having news blaring makes it hard to connect to one’s ancestors. Having a group of women coming and going, busy at their various tasks, with only the noise of the birds or the crickets coming through the open windows and screen doors, well, that’s an elegant, healing vibe. Women who are content to be with the quiet and to engage in short conversations aimed solely at conveying necessary information.

Finally, Mother Goddess. Finally, you danced me into a circle of harmony, warmth and rightness.

The merging of the Gaia enclave with our enclave as a survival move from the economic devastation of Covid raised the vibration of this place. The elegance and grace and charm feels like an umbrella protecting me.

With spring upon us, we have given up on news and Netflix series naturally. With Sister Quinn taking the living space of the intern, the five us prefer working until darkness as the light expands through the evening, and an easy-found sleep, to spending any time at all with the tv. Springtime projects beckon us.

The women prefer to be surrounded by quiet, with only the sounds of the crickets and the farmer’s tractor humming softly in the distance. In the twilight of the day, one sister sits on the blue sofa learning how to make tik tok content (Sister Luna in from Mexico), one is at the kitchen table sewing (Sister Kate), one is at the sink cleaning (Sister Sophia is always cleaning), and one is on the floral sofa trimming (Sister Quinn). The easy quiet between us is golden.

Not all things are easy here, not all things graceful. Every once in a while, Sister Quinn will blurt out to someone, ‘Are you stupid?’.

We had a rescue puppy come and go and an intern come and go. Both had the same syndrome. Thin skin and small brains.

Seriously, the puppy can’t live on our farm because his skin is too thin to handle foxtails and they become absorbed and infected and we spent over eight hundred dollars on surgeries and after-care before we and the vet decided he can’t live here. We can control the foxtails on our one acre, but he takes off and frolics at adjacent farms and we don’t want to cage or chain him.

And his brain is too small to understand that foxtails are deadly to him.

I believe Sparky came into my life as a metaphor for the many sisters who have come and gone. Thin skin and small brains. That’s a combination that doesn’t work with this team, at this enclave.

“New rule,” Sister Quinn announced one night. “If we have to dumb down our conversations to meet the level of a potential sister, then that’s a no-fit, right? I mean, did she really think we were going to name our gummies nun nums? WTF? What about that proclaims serious women on a serious mission? Has she not met us???”

As soon as she said it, she offered a lame apology for her outburst, “I’m sorry Sister Kate, but I just don’t get how some people can be so stoooooooopid.”

Ignoring the fact that the apology wasn’t actually an apology, I explained that we want to grow our enclave worldwide and the women need to be taught how to own property and manage small businesses. All women. “If they all had master’s degrees they wouldn’t need us, now, would they? But I do concede that for this team, at this time, your rule is a good one.” I admitted, as well, that I found conversation with the last intern to be painful.

There are probably many businesses, perhaps as many as half in America that are teetering like we are, in the weird world of expectation and trying not to fall off the cliff while clinging to hopefulness. There was a slight uptick in sales in April. Is that a sign of economic recovery? Why has it slowed again?

Maybe other businesses have received more economic injury disaster funding, but we wait for it as our PPP funds ran out last week. Sales are still under $2,000 a day and $3,000 a day is what we are engineered for so that means we continue to limp along at a loss, although that lost isn’t a thousand a day, it’s down to about ten thousand a month, or $333 a day.

We could make cuts, but we have been trying not to do that.

Making cuts is not what you do when you are preparing to launch or mid-launch of new projects.

Just last week we launched our affiliate program, which basically has us paying back five percent on all referrals. I hope to soon be in the business of writing a lot of checks (clicking out a lot of paypal or quickbooks transactions?) on the fifteenth of every month for folks who help us spread the Good Word of medicinal hemp and all its many healing compounds.

Wholesale Is Creeping Back Out Of Its Hole

Our wholesale business was decimated by Covid. The SBA has help for shuttered businesses, but that doesn’t include start-ups who were rightfully prepared for a first lean year, but not for two difficult years. Sisters of the Valley Gaia’s Hope was born in January of 2019, the year that bankers wiped out 90% of the cannabis businesses on the west coast.

The Gaia enclave operated during 2019 and 2020, all of which was a struggle, shut down on February 15th of this year and folded all their assets and operations back into the Sisters of the Valley mother farm operations. We rented an apartment in town for Brother David and his son and Sister Sophia and her intern moved in here.

Just like our team here shrunk when we lost Sisters who had to go back east and take care of relatives during lockdown, or just simply ran away, the Gaia’s enclave lost half of their starter team. It made sense to put our remaining small teams together.

We relaunched wholesale through our primary store platform. We improved our merchant processing options, giving customers things like subscription services and payment services that allow them to spread out the payments on an order. We are every day getting better at serving our customers.

We now ship to our customers from four points in North America. Here, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. We do that so we can get the stock to the customers faster. We are still figuring out how to do this cost-effectively.

We have a search engine optimization team and while four hundred thousand small businesses went out of business during Covid, we limped along with at least a minimum of sales, never having a zero sales day. We attribute our survival to the whole of these things we did to up our internet visibility and improve our service.

We’ve made over six thousand in sales since late March, when we re-launched wholesale. Not so very impressive, but a start.We have plenty of stock of plant material for salve and tea. We are stocked on gelcaps. We have our lawyers funded for the patent that is pending on our processes.

We have over $20,000 in plant material in stock, over $17,000 in concentrates stocked, and finished product in four locations with a retail value of $160,000.

We are at the final stages of launching our mushroom powder superfood complex. We haven’t named it.

We got tired of the turnover in people. We get judged by some for our turnover, even though, that’s no yardstick to us. You would expect a lot of turnover in a fresh, new order. We are strange to most people, and friends and families put pressure on new sisters to leave us. “It will tarnish your chances for a normal future,” they say to the young ones, but that hasn’t proven to be true.

We got tired of the turnover, so we outsourced. We outsourced shipping, we outsourced customer service, and we expanded the IT budget to include a search engine optimization team — sales and marketing specialists for internet visibility.

We Have Harmony

We have weekly Tuesday 7 a.m. sales and marketing meetings because the attendees span time-zones from here to Ukraine. We have 3 p.m. Wednesday staff meetings.

We couldn’t find a cook like Sister June, who retired three months into Covid, so we are making due with catered lunches and taking turns with dinners.

We needed our housekeeper working on medicine making, so we outsourced the housekeeping.

We don’t know if we are going to get additional SBA help or aide from California or if we are going to be cutting the very services we just put in place.

Our vegetables and our long season hemp plants are ready to go into the ground. We can only plant about 1/8th of an acre of hemp here on this one-acre farm. We grow enough for approximately two moon cycles of salve. And we’ve never been granted our permit. If you haven’t seen the film, Breaking Habits, it’s a documentary film on the starting of the sisterhood and it ends on a hopeful note about the sisters getting their business permit. That never happened. We have been operating without a business permit since February of 2016 when we occupied this little mini-farm.

The Sisters lost banking in the summer months following the release of the film and, ironically enough, in the Autumn that followed, got banking back because of the film. A female banking executive at a mid-west bank called after seeing the film on her business flight back home and said, “If you still don’t have banking, I will help you.” And she did and we have banked with her bank ever since.

In the summer following the release of the film, at the same time that we lost banking, the county ruled that you can only have a permit to grow hemp and/or manufacture hemp products if you have at least twenty acres for farming. That made their work easier. Fewer permits, less work and also, it neatly ensured that the Sisters will never get a permit for this one-acre farm.

With one little strike of the pen, the lawmakers blocked us from legally doing what we do.

At the same time, they ruled that if the same owner operated two parcels and they add up to 20 acres, that will be a permittable situation for a hemp business license.

We have been operating illegally, in a sense, since we came here. The fact that we are not permitted allows us to claim our favorite title of ‘anarchist nuns’, although we pay taxes to every agency possible from local to federal.

I didn’t really mind our non-permitted status, since it isn’t stopping us. Not being permitted means we don’t pay the permit fees, so that’s one thing. Another is that America clearly has a small farm crisis and we had hoped to grow the sisterhood through acquiring more one- to five-acre places. We are not buying into the 20-acre minimum law. It’s un-American. It favors the rich.

But then, less than a week ago, that farm down the road became available.

We had to see it and we liked it so much that we all fell asleep that night with visions of hemp acreage dancing in our heads.

Like this place was when I bought it, the houses are old, and humble, but mostly kept up.

It’s down the block.

We could ride our bikes back and forth or, Goddess willing, could we have horse and buggy rides between the farms?

We would have room to grow our own hemp saving us a minimum of $20,000 a year and if we are allowed extraction and can afford extraction facilities, up to $100,000 a year. We could lower our prices and our customers deserve that.

The county would have to permit us because 19.3 plus 1 means we would have the minimum 20 acres.

We would have expansion room for our mushroom powder operations.

We would have expansion room for visitors and new sisters.

We like it so much that I am afraid already of the loss I will feel if I can’t make this happen. The loss we will all feel, but I am holding faith that this is a blessed venture, brought to us by the benevolent grace of Mother Goddess.

We have to acquire a letter of preliminary approval for the loan and it’s a 19.3 acre parcel, so the loan is big. We want to leverage equity in this property and make it ano cash in / no cash out deal. The funds we finally got back from our payment processor can then be kept in reserve to fix the place up. When you buy a place in Merced County, you have to have at least forty thousand to fix it up.

If we can do this, Sister Quinn won’t have to share my small, private quarters in the abbey.

If we can do this, Sister Maria will have her own house and thus, a place to bring her children.

We can have immediate financing if we put 20% down and pay 10% interest plus 2% closing points. Wait, what?

Twenty percent down is $175,000! We don’t have that kind of money laying around. Two percent closing points is over sixteen thousand dollars!

From Tuesday through Thursday, I pondered how to raise the funds. By Friday, I figured out something wealthy people already know. Use the equity in the assets I have in this one-acre farm to pay the down payment and closing costs and if we can’t do it that way, no cash in, no cash-out, then we will have to let this one slip away.

That would be unfortunate because I believe Mother Goddess put this before us because she wanted us to have that quick expansion to make up for two years of hell. I think she meant for this property to be a blessing rather than a curse. So it has to happen with divine grace or not at all.

One house is completely renovated and new. One house is old, but functional and neat. The third is a tiny little gingerbread house with the porch roof caving in and the flooring in the bedroom sinks when you walk through, but we could fix it up.

There is already nearly $2,000 a month in rental income coming between the farmer who farms the 17 acres and the grandson of the owners who occupies the main house and will continue to do so for six months after sale as a condition of sales.

Did I say it’s right next to a stinky foster farms chicken death factory?

A few points on that:

  1. It’s because of the foster farms death factory that this property isn’t being swept up, paid for in cash, same day, by city folk from the coast. That’s what’s happening with a lot of the housing around here as Covid caused people to adjust to working from home. The city people don’t want this farm because of its proximity to foster farms.
  2. Foster Farms doesn’t want it. The owners offered it to them first.
  3. The wind blows favorably in the opposite direction of our farm, so it’s probably easily as stinky as this place and we manage with all the poop-dirt and dairy farms around us.
  4. The land is organically certified.
  5. What better plant to grow fields of next to a stinky death factory than hemp? It is regenerative to the soil and will detoxify the air.

The owners have several other offers. They had an offer Monday night when we went to look at it. We have a few more days to figure out financing or lose it to the second, third, fourth or fifth set of folks who, no doubt, want it.

Wish us luck on this make-up-for-covid-time journey.

1 Comment

  1. Muriel Holland

    Yeah for all of you. !! This will work because you have the right spirit and put your energy into helping people as well as makeing lives for yourselves. And good for you not letting the County scare you off by refusing a business permit. I’m 78, live on my 5 acres in Fresno County, earn a living with Airbnb cabins at my home and take care of my land, horses and friends by myself . With a little reciprocal help from a couple of friends of course. A friend introduced me to your salve when I was desperate with pain and it kept me going untill I was finally diagnosed with Polymyalgiarheumatica and began takeing Prednisone. I still use your salve for a variety of pain and it also seems to be helping with a sun related skin problem. Recently useing it for a sore on my sweet cat that the vet doesn’t know how to treat and it’s looking good. Sending you all my strong thoughts and hopes for your sucess in the new 20 acre venture. Wishing you a sunny future Muriel