I sat down with Sarah Stenuf, veteran and founder of Ananda Farms and Veteran’s Ananda. The former is a Fulton, New York-based hemp farm and the later is a non-profit organization offering traditional and non-traditional therapies to veterans. We talk about the life-changing effects of cannabis for veterans, why she’s focusing her operations in small towns, and the opportunities in the emerging New York market.
Sarah Stenuf is a badass.
Really, that’s the most succinct way to put it. Stenuf is a retired Army soldier turned farmer who founded Ananda Farms and Veteran’s Ananda. She’s an advocate for cannabis and alternative therapy treatments for veterans and the revitalization of small towns.
Stenuf came to cannabis as a last resort, tired of dealing with feeling like a “walking zombie” from the plethora of medications prescribed to treat her seizures, nightmares, pain, and other PTSD symptoms. This spurred a journey into botanical medicines and growing her own cannabis, which would ultimately lead to buying a farm.
Today, Ananda Farms has over 40 acres of hemp, with a retail store opening in October. They’re the first U-Pick hemp farm in New York, and the profits from the farm support Veteran’s Ananda, their non-profit arm. Veteran’s Ananda helps veterans access short-term healing retreats, long-term psychological care, and alternative treatments after leaving the military.
It comes as no surprise that Stenuf believes a calm, rural setting is integral to the adjustment process from leaving the military. A veteran herself, Stenuf knows firsthand the challenges that come with transitioning to civilian life; the loss of purpose, PTSD, and a myriad of other side effects. She also knows how life-changing cannabis and farming can be to people in those situations.
Dirt therapy, as she calls it, has had a profound impact not just on her health, but the health of the veterans that come to stay. (Science shows that digging in the dirt can increase serotonin production, making you happier.)
But this belief in the healing power of rural areas pervades her work, championing cannabis in small towns too. Stenuf knows that the big cities will get it figured out; between tourism and traffic volumes, there’s no doubt that cities like New York City and Buffalo will benefit from cannabis. But she wants to make sure her neighbors can benefit too. Stenuf is involved with the process of legalization at the state and local level, equally comfortable speaking at State Assembly meetings and town boards meetings. She advocates for veteran’s rights to cannabis and easy access to cannabis in small towns.
So, what’s next for Stenuf?
First up, New York’s first U-Pick hemp kicks off on October 9th, the same day their on-site store opens. From there, the sky is the limit. Stenuf has as many ideas from the future as you would expect from such a visionary. She wants to acquire more land, build more tiny homes, franchise Ananda Farms retail locations in small communities across the state, and build a full tiny home Vet Village. And of course, Stenuf also wants to create an educational training program to help veterans and their families enter the cannabis industry.
Talking to Stenuf was a reminder of the profound impact we can have on our communities we when think globally and act locally. Locally grown CBD is my favorite and I’ll be heading to the farm in October for my own branch of personally picked hemp!
The core focus of Ananda Farms is supporting Veteran’s Ananda; tell me about that
SS: Ananda Farms started to generate awareness and revenue for the non-profit. I didn’t want to chase galas or events or donors all the time; I wanted to be self-sufficient. Veteran’s Ananda provides short-duration, high-impact retreats to the farm and access to long-term affordable or free mental and physical health care for veterans. We have a few tiny homes on our farm and the hemp we grow is medicine for vets.
Veterans kick ass. We have vets helping on the farm year-round, usually a dozen-plus. This year at the u-pick, we’ll have even more. It’s a great time to have them at harvest.
It’s an honor for me to share my farm with them; to get the education out, get the awareness out. It goes beyond opportunities and resume building – they consider it therapy; they love learning about the plant. I didn’t realize the impact it had on them beyond building a basic resume and getting a job and an opportunity to get away in the field. All of the therapy I was getting out of it, they were too. That’s what really sparked us to drive this even more.
We call it dirt therapy and we believe in creating post-traumatic growth through a lot of these non-traditional therapies. The field is the only place where I can go out and feel more purpose; to connect with the vets when they get out, show them they have meaning, they have a place they belong and I have a place I belong. We can connect, we can be vulnerable, we can be weak here and still get shit done.
Can New York support outdoor-grown weed?
SS: I see cannabis taking off quite well. A lot of people are like “well what about your winters?”
Now the problem is a lot of people are buying genetics that came out of a place next to the equator; high humidity, 100-degree days. They’re not stable varietals in New York. Ours are straight from Delhi, New York. Open-pollinated aerated, organic seeds.
They are so stable and amazing here. Our girls love the winter as much as our kids do. When the cold profile pops up and you get that nice dew in the morning, the terpene profile hits, the nice smell hits. When the first frost hits, it draws the trichomes and flavonoids out. It smells good, it tastes better, and it makes it look pretty as hell. When temperatures plummet, it draws the phosphorus out and that’s how you get those beautiful blues, pinks, and purples. They really like one or two light frosts to draw everything out.
What’s something in the industry you’re really excited about?
SS: Opportunities and incentives for veterans, farmers, and small businesses. It’s crazy right now but I see a lot of progressiveness happening, which is cool.
A lot of people have their heart set on these big cities bringing in all the money; Rochester, Binghamton, Syracuse. But it’s a huge opportunity for us too, these small towns, to put our foot in the door and really reap the benefits of these small business opportunities. And we should.
4% of the tax [on adult-use cannabis] goes back to the municipality. Not the county, the municipality- town, village. 4% goes back and they can do whatever they want with that. They could put up drug and alcohol education classes. They can open up their own social lounge, especially in communities big in HUD, Section-8, where you’re not allowed to consume. So now the town owns the social lounge and reaps the benefits while also collecting the tax dollars from that same social lounge.
I’m approaching towns in this way, letting them know that no matter what, it’s legal. The only thing you can prevent is jobs, opportunities, tax incentives, a safe place to buy it, and a way to also have a safe place to consume. We have so much infrastructure sitting here from companies that got up and left; lots and buildings across New York. Let’s use what we got!
There are ways to implement this to make it safe and opportunistic while maintaining the characteristics of small towns. Take the opportunity, reap the benefits, and press the education. It can be a revenue generator in a multitude of ways. I see so much opportunity and I hope more small towns and municipalities reap the benefits. We’re pushing the money out by not having it here. We need to be at the forefront of this, especially with small businesses.
What’s one thing in the industry you think needs to change?
SS: I’m worried a lot of the licenses will get pushed into these heavy revenue stream cities and small communities will be an afterthought. That’s my focus.
People are so focused on commoditization and commercialization, making that money. They want to be in the cities, near the college kids, in tourist areas. Me? Small town all day. Small towns, rural communities are where it’s at. [Cities] may make higher streams of revenue but our returns and customer base will be a lot better.
Is corporate social responsibility something you just type up and preach, or is it embedded into your company’s DNA and something you do? I care about returning customers, helping the little man that doesn’t have access to it in the small towns that are often forgotten. If I can provide affordable, safe access to cannabis for medical patients at my recreational dispensary, and they don’t have to travel to Rochester or Binghamton, yes, it’s recreational but it’s local and my money goes back local.
I see where they’re going at and I wish them the best; I’m gonna stick to Oswego and my small towns. I want my money to go back to my municipality.
Where do you see the future of the industry?
SS: Technology [around grain and fiber] is really weak. There are so many textiles that can come out of the process, but there’s a lack of technology and infrastructure. The plant is heavily commercial and commoditized so we lack the necessary research to build this. Grain and fiber are very weak, particularly in the state of New York compared to southern states. I’m hoping to do grain and fiber here soon. But even once you grow it and get the machinery that costs more than your mortgage, there’s no way to process it and make it into something affordable for yourself or the customer.
I would love to see more research [surrounding the grain and fiber side of the industry] beyond medicine. As we get more into the research of the flower and the grain and fiber, everything is going to change. Not just textiles, but medicine- everything. That’s for all botanical medicines too – fungi’s, lavenders. With more research around botanical medicine, medicine will change. I can’t even imagine textiles- it’ll be like sci-fi.
How does sustainability factor into your business?
SS: We try our best to be not just sustainable but regenerative. We know sustainability you can only go for so long until you can’t maintain it anymore. You need to know how to maintain and scale and adapt. Sustainability is great but regeneration is awesome.
We grow organic, all-natural hemp. We use organic soil; seaweed, kelp, worm castings, etc. We use no pesticides, no herbicides, fungicides, no bottled ingredients.
A little background on our land: I acquired it from Paul, a Mennonite. I wanted our land to be organic, I wanted to know who practiced on it and what they did. Preferably USDA had to have its own wells, timber rights, mineral rights. We practice everything we can organically and use nothing on our plants. We don’t even use plastic on our rows; it’s all hand-weaving.