Three years ago, Weed World focused on the story of Sarah Stenuf, a US army veteran, who detailed her experiences with PTSD and how cannabis had contributed to her rehabilitation.

Her relationship with the plant had prompted her to launch Veteran’s Ananda Inc, a not-for profit organization which was working in partnership with Ananda Farms, a hemp farm she owns and manages in upstate New York.

At that time, New York state had not legalized recreational cannabis and the hemp farm was in its infancy. Three hard years later – spent learning to farm the hemp plant and researching and developing a product range – we caught up with Sarah who was celebrating the fact that she had been granted a license to open New York state’s first and only PYO hemp farm. She will join a small number of hemp farmers in the USA who are using this tradition to bring hemp and its beneficial properties to local communities.

PYO (Pick Your Own) fruit farms are a summer/fall fixture in rural farming communities in the USA, UK and other parts of the world. Over the years many childhood memories have been made stuffing as many strawberries, raspberries and blueberries into the mouth than the basket that is weighed up at the end and paid for (often with accompanying bellyache!).Ananda Farms is taking the concept to a whole new level, as those visiting the farm over a two-week period in October will be selecting buds, branches, and whole plants from this year’s hemp crop.

When we catch up with Sarah, she’s taking a break from the heat of the July sun and the morning’s chore of hand weeding between rows of hemp. This year, Ananda Farms, which she runs with her partner, hassownover20,000 plants on over 30 acres of organically-farmed land(hence weeding by non-chemical means).The site has been planted out with Berry Blossom a high-CBD stabilized organic hemp variety supplied by Raven’s View genetics, which is based within an hour’s drive of the farm.

She laughs about the hand weeding, making light of the fact that from April to ‘Croptober’ her time is a precious commodity when it comes to farming hemp organically. “The weeds don’t stop. Turn your back for a couple of moments and they’re back! But we’ve only ever been about organic. If you are using Ananda Farms hemp to make a salad or a tincture, then I want you to know that it is authentic 100% natural and I grew it with love! But, it's hard work and I couldn’t do it all without the help from my wife, volunteers, and veteranswho support our work on the farm.

“More about the veterans later, but first of all, let’s answer that burning question. Just how did Sarah come up with the idea for a PYO hemp farm and how do you go about picking your own hemp? “I come from a family of farmers,” explains Sarah,” My Uncle Joe and Uncle Tony have one of the biggest PYO farms in the state of New York with hundreds of acres of apples, blueberries and sweetcorn.

I remember seeing, right from when I was a kid, how great this was as a community thing – coming out and picking your own food fresh from the ground. It’s something that gave real community value, both as an experience and also in real price terms compared to buying from a supermarket.

With New York state’ laws, regulations, and policies changing regarding cannabis; to include the legalization of marijuana and the creation of the Cannabinoid Hemp Program, Isaw an opportunity to adapt the PYO model to hemp. It’s all about affordable access to people who need the most – from low-income families to seniors and veterans and people just looking to use cannabis-based products for health reasons -medicinal and nutritional.

“Promising the community ‘a unique hands-one xperience’ picking your own hemp won’t quite be the same as picking your own soft fruit.For various reasons ,from Covid to public safety, Ananda Farmswon’t beletting people go off into the field with their own shears to harvest plants.

They will be supplying dedicated staff to-do the chopping for people and there will be one plot dedicated to whole plants and another to just branches. Sarah stresses that, despite legalization being passed, it is not (yet) legal to sell flower for the purpose of smoking, therefore picked hemp is sold fora multitude of other uses to include as a supplement, for dietary needs, or even to make various textiles, meaning that the leaves and buds can be used for turning into salads, juices, topicals, rubs, salves, and more right at home. “We know from experience that there are all kinds of users out there.

 For ‘those who know’ we are offering an affordable access service to cut costs and save time, but for those who don’t we are providing education and guidance about what to do with their PYO purchase. This will include tips on how to trim, dry, and cure and staff with hemp experience to answer people’s questions.

From experience of being a farmer first and a hemp farmer second, I am aware that many people don’t really think about how a product is grown, so for many people this will be their first experience of seeing a cannabis plant.

Going to the source is a really informative and rewarding experience and is a key factor in Ananda Farm’s mission to educate. “Another big difference between soft fruits and hemp is that soft fruits don’t come with legal levels of THC that need to be adhered to. In the US, the level of acceptable THC in hemp is 0.3%.

While a strain such as Berry Blossom has been bred for a high CBD content(18 – 20%)and the legal amounts of THC, natural factors can affect those levels such as environmental stress or harvest timing, creating so called ‘hot hemp’ (i.e., with excess THC levels).

For this reason, Ananda Farms must test levels and submit pre-sample reports ahead of harvest to the relevant authorities(the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets)to ensure the crop complies to regulations – for the past three years Ananda Farms has passed all tests and inspections done by the state.

While PYO is a novel way of selling hemp as a consumer product, the Ananda Farms' initiative reflects the search for new commercial opportunities by small hemp farmers in their search for commercial viability.

The ‘hemp’ revolution in the USA, since the passing of the2018Farm Bill, has seen many hemp farmers come and go - Sarah refers to a 30 -40% drop out rate in the state amongst hemp farmers seeking to earn a living from farming the crop, and many more downscaling their operations.

Legalization of hemp offered the prospect of diversification and a potentially profitable cash crop,but (as anyone who has seriously farmed hemp will tell you!) the lack of infrastructure, farm technology, processing facilities, and access to market have provided huge obstacles and seen many dreams shattered. Ananda Farms has survived the past three years through innovation.

It sells seeds, seedlings, flowers, and has also launched a range of hemp-basedproducts which are soldonlineat Ananda Farms and in local stores. However, Sarah admits that things would be a lot more challenging if she couldn’t call on the help of volunteers, local farmers and veterans who come to stay on the farm.

Talking to her there is a real sense of community and collective farming, which taps into the tradition of working small farms in rural communities. This is especially pertinent with hemp, a crop which lacks the infrastructure and available technology (for harvesting and processing for example) that exists in established agriculture. Normalizing hemp as just another crop is a big part of the Ananda Farms vision which has worked hard since.

day one to de-stigmatize the plant through its work with veteran and community groups. The Ananda Farms project was inspired by Sarah’s experience as a combat veteran who does struggle with PTSD and epilepsy from a TBI (traumatic brain injury); and it runs in tandem with the not-for profit organization she established, Veteran’s Ananda Inc( two are complementary – at least 10% of profits from the farm are invested into the charity which provides ‘tiny homes’ on the farm for forces veterans who have also suffered with PTSD.

It provides a space to provide support, care and rehabilitation and specializes in what Sarah refers to as ‘dirt therapy’ (or ‘post traumatic growth’). Vets stay on the farm (it can be a long weekend, or a few months depending on the person) and engage with nature through helping out on the farm. “Ananda is a Sanskrit word and refers to a higher state of being an internal joy and the best way to get there is connecting to oneself.

For me, I believe that comes through nature and awareness; through agro-cognitive therapies and a unique approach to healing. We use traditional and non-traditional treatments intertwined to tailor a plan for each vet, no more one-size fits all approach. ” While the term Ananda is one that has been co-opted by many yoga retreats and new age leaning organizations around the world, in this Upstate New York to whit definitely takes a different form.

The term ‘dirt therapy’ speaks volumes about the work of Ananda Farm and Veteran’s Ananda and the hard work that goes with working the land to produce something wonderful – in this case it is looking to be a bountiful crop of hemp for October that will be ready to pick your own.

Published and Written by Che Capri in Weed World Magazine issue 153