Cannabis for WNY gardeners: increasing interest, college courses available

by Connie Oswald Stofko

student pruning hemp plant at Niagara County Community College in Sanborn NY
Katie Fischer, a student at Niagara County Community College, prunes a hemp plant (Cannabis sativa). Photo courtesy Niagara County Community College

Perhaps as soon as January, patients with a medical card can legally grow cannabis at home in Western New York, and in about two years, home gardeners will also be able to legally grow cannabis.

“There’s increasing interest in growing cannabis at home,” said Carolyn Stanko, professor and co-coordinator in the Horticulture Program and coordinator in Biology at Niagara County Community College (NCCC).

NCCC is the lead institution for a $1 million grant from New York State for community colleges to create or expand their cannabis programs. The other colleges involved are Erie Community College, Jamestown Community College and Genesee Community College.

“We’re the only ones who have a program in growing cannabis,” Stanko said, noting that NCCC has offered courses in cannabis since fall 2019. “It’s well established and robust.”

A rare set of skills and experience is brought to the program by Melissa Moore, co-coordinator of the Horticulture Program and instructor of Cannabis at NCCC. Originally from Buffalo, she lived in Northern California for 15 years, working in the cannabis industry. After working in cultivation and processing of cannabis, she started her own analytics lab. She named it Emerald Triangle Analytics for the three counties where most of the cannabis in the United States was grown.

“I can answer students’ questions because I’ve been in the industry so long,” Moore said. Even though it isn’t yet legal to grow cannabis in New York State, “I’ve got a lot of students who know their stuff. I have to know more.”

The SUNY Cannabis–From Seed to Sale Grant will fund student scholarships; student subsidies to support childcare, transportation and other needs; annual industry seminars, and on-campus grow facilities. NCCC already has a license to grow hemp (Cannabis sativa) but won’t grow medicinal or recreational cannabis (Cannabis indica), Stanko said.

Two kinds: hemp and medicinal cannabis

Hemp is Cannabis sativa. The plant is grown for its seeds and fiber. The seeds can be eaten or made into other food products such as hemp seed oil and hemp seed “milk.”

Growing hemp isn’t something you would do in your backyard at this point. It’s large-scale growing under New York State’s Industrial Hemp Program— the license costs $500.

The one used medicinally or recreationally is Cannabis indica. (“People argue whether it’s a second species or a subspecies of Cannabis sativa,” Moore said. “USDA says it’s one species so technically it’s Cannabis sativa subsp. indica.”

“There are a lot of different strains,” Moore said. “Each has different compounds.”

For medicinal purposes, cannabis has been used for centuries. But medical practitioners want to know exactly how much of an active ingredient is in a medicine, and it used to be difficult to ascertain that with cannabis.

“This, along with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, is what pushed cannabis out of pharmacies,” Moore said. “Analytical technology now allows us to control plant extraction ratios,” and, as prohibitions are easing up, “medical uses of cannabis are making a comeback. It’s earning back its space in the medicine cabinet.

“I’m so excited to have a medical applications course and have it in an academic setting.”

Here’s an article about potential health benefits of cannabis from Johnson & Wales University and a blog post about medical marijuana from Harvard Medical School.

Classes in person, online

You don’t have to travel to Sanborn to take classes in cannabis, Stanko said; you can do it online as well.

The fall semester will begin Aug. 29.

There are four ways to take the classes:

  • Senior Scholars Program for students aged 60 or older on a space-available basis; zero tuition
  • Workforce Development, non-credit. The cost is lower and you can pick and choose your classes. You can receive credit at a later date if you choose to pursue the AAS or Certificate Program.
  • Traditional. For credit toward a Horticulture Certificate (1 year) or AAS degree (2 years). Full tuition.
  • Non-matriculated. For credit, but not towards any specific degree. Full tuition.

If you want to earn the one-year certificate or the AAS degree, you must be able to attend some required classes on campus. If you are unable to attend classes on campus, she recommends the Workforce Development option.

Students can attend full time or part time. 

Here are her recommendations for cannabis classes for home gardeners:

Fall semester (classes start Aug. 29)

  • HRT 215 Cannabis Production
  • HRT 161 Medical Applications of Cannabis
  • CUL 250 Culinary Cannabis and Edibles

Spring semester (January start):

  • HRT 202 Biology of Cannabis
  • HRT 203 Cannabis Products and Technologies

See course descriptions here.

All of NCCC’s horticulture classes are open to everyone including Senior Scholars and Workforce Development students. Areas include Landscape Design, Floral Design, Landscape Installation & Maintenance and Greenhouse Management.

“Professional-level skills are what gardeners want at home,” Stanko said. “Learn how the pros do it and do that at your house.

“And if you want a job, we’ve got ya. We have nearly 100 percent placement in employment. Many businesses contact us about hiring our graduates.”

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