Cannabis plants grow at a former alfalfa farm in Socorro that’s been converted into a project that aims to find strains that will grow well in the New Mexico heat and test a few already popular strains to find the most economic way to grow them. (Cathy Cook/El Defensor Chieftain)



SOCORRO – On a small farm tucked away in the city of Socorro, 400 cannabis plants are growing in rows of large pots. With more than eight strains and different soil mixtures – some with microorganisms and others with pearlite, peat moss and a proprietary mixture – the goal of the farm is not retail success but data.

The former alfalfa farm is a research project run by “Weeds. Cannabis Consulting,” a business that helps growers and retailers navigate the complexities of the newly expanded cannabis industry. The goal of the farm is to find new strains that will grow well in the New Mexico heat and test a few already popular strains to find the most economic way to grow them.

What soil mixture will offer the best yield and require less water? How little water can they use to grow marijuana plants in a state where farmers are already struggling to get enough water for crops like chile and alfalfa that have been grown here for generations? After the plants are grown, harvested and dried, which strains will appeal the most to consumers?

Business partners Pat Davis, an Albuquerque city councilor and chair of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s 2019 cannabis legalization working group, and Matt Kennicott, who helped with the expansion of medical cannabis licensing in former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, hope the data from their summer growing project will answer these questions. Then they can pass along those answers to consulting clients.

“A new startup, a family business, if they can only afford to grow two or three strains a year, it’s going to help them get the ones that the customers want and that they can afford,” said Davis.

Socorro offered a central location in the state, the benefits of altitude, the heat they want to test, and an easy place for interested parties from Albuquerque and Silver City to meet.

“We’ve worked with cities and counties all across the state,” said Davis. “Lots of them have, even though they’re not allowed to ban cannabis, lots of them have found de facto ways to do it by adding local rules that make it prohibitive to do. Socorro was open and said we’re going to treat you like any other industry if you want to spend money, if you want to hire our folks, we’re willing to do that.”

The farm has one full-time grower who lives on-site and two part-time employees. They’ve also hired construction workers to build walls and haul dirt and had to pay for electrical work to put in security cameras, one of several security requirements.

Research challenges

Inflation has ballooned expenses, doubling the budget for the farm’s block wall and irrigation equipment. Supply chain issues have been even more exaggerated in the cannabis business, said Davis, because so many new cannabis farmers have joined the industry and need to purchase the same supplies – soil, pots, hoses – as farmers growing other crops.

The business infrastructure for all of the new cannabis operations does not fully exist yet, which could be an opportunity for someone with a large enough building and enough workers.

“No one’s built out the places to dry them, process them,” Davis said. “We don’t have enough testing infrastructure, so everybody’s right now putting plants in the ground, hoping somebody else will be ready to take them when they harvest them this fall. We’re literally, like the old cliché says, building the plane as we’re flying it. That’s the challenge.”

Kennicott thinks that’s a challenge worth taking.

“This is something in New Mexico we haven’t seen in a long time, if ever really. It’s a new industry and people can jump in and have some opportunity here,” said Kennicott.

He’s also excited about breaking down the stigma around cannabis and believes that cannabis businesses should be educators about what benefits the industry can bring to communities.

“I also like the fact that we’re, really as a cannabis community working on breaking down a lot of the stigmas on cannabis and a lot of the damage that’s been done in the past to folks who’ve run afoul of previous laws. Breaking down those stigmas to me is really important.”

Davis thinks most towns are saturated with retail at this point and predicts a drastic slowdown in licensing and startups by the end of the year. He could see a few more retailers finding success in Socorro, but not a half dozen.

“If the market can absorb all the new products, the prices will definitely go down because we’re in a supply shortage right now for cannabis because there’s not enough. But if everybody brings all these products to market, prices will go way down and that’s going to put some of those people who aren’t well prepared out of business.”

The outdoor growing project will wrap up by the end of the summer. The fate of the farm will depend on the success of the project. It could be used for more research projects next year, or turned into somebody’s home grow, said Davis, but the size of the property won’t allow a big commercial operation.

“I think Socorro can be really proud that they’ve created an infrastructure that makes people want to spend money in agriculture again and hire local people and that’s not happening anywhere else in New Mexico much,” said Davis.