The dawn of the new age of cannabis in California has primarily highlighted the trials and tribulations of freshly permitted producers of the plant, from cultivators and manufacturers to dispensaries. Yet, what about the people left behind, the ones who aren’t going for the permit? Growers like us have been so swept up in getting our own scene together that very few of us have stopped to look outside our own gardens while others were losing their gardens completely.
I gained a glimpse into that world last weekend, and it was enlightening. And depressing. I was at a meeting of the International Cannabis Farmers Association, where I joined the conversation at a breakout table titled “Transitioning Into the Future.” The group of ten people was gathered under a lovely white gazebo on the green lawns of the Flow Cannabis Institute in Mendocino County. Other groups scattered across the grounds discussed topics such as “Marketing and Consumer Education” or “Legislative and Regulatory Advocacy.”
Kristen Nevedal, founding chair of the board of ICFA and stalwart of the NorCal cannabis community for years, was hosting the table. As I approached, the conversation was already warming up.
“They’re dropping like flies,” stated Kevin Jodrey, Humboldt cannabis wizard and owner of Wonderland Nursery, in his thick Rhode Island accent. He claimed he’s seeing people packing up and leaving all around him, and most are old-time farmers. “The numbers just don’t add up, and unless they can be big growers, they just can’t make it work.”
The early signs of an exodus have been obvious for several months now, if you’ve been looking. At first, only a few blessed with prescience saw the cannabis crash coming, considered their chances of survival and made conscious decisions about their future in the business. Most chose to ignore it and trust the black market would thrive forever, some saw the writing on the wall and moved on awhile ago and a few actually went for the permits and the legal route. It’s the first group who are suffering now.
It began to become apparent last July or so. As light deprivation crops were beginning their harvest season it started to dawn on many growers that they had yet to sell any of their 2016 harvest. People were sitting on 100-plus pound loads and no one was buying. And if someone did offer, the prices were so ridiculously low, hovering between an average of $500-$800 per pound, that they were insulted and refused. At first. After a few more months, they were happy to accept $500 for a pound of beautiful sungrown cannabis flowers. But it seemed like a crime and it was hurting everyone.
By autumn it began to be obvious to local business owners and politicians as well. Members of the Board of Supervisors were clearly hearing it back from some of their more prosperous constituents that business was failing. Finally, they recognized the significant impact of cannabis growing on the economy of the county. Hence, the lawmakers began to listen more closely to the farmers. But it was too late. The permit process had begun Jan. 1, 2017 and nine months later only about 600 applications had been submitted. The majority of the estimated 8,000-plus growers in the country was clearly choosing to stay in the black market zone.
Once the fires came in October, desperation became palpable. The thick smoke that covered much of Mendocino County choked people’s spirits and many just gave up. “It just won’t work, no matter how I crank the numbers” is what is heard over and over again forlornly. For Sale signs began popping up everywhere as property values plummeted in the wrong zones for growing cannabis, which is about 80 percent of Mendocino County at this point.
At the breakout table, we pinpointed the two groups most at risk: seniors and kids. We questioned if there is any way we can be of help, when we are all struggling to pay our own taxes and permits and all the costs of going legit. Yet there must be a way to assist the struggling factions of our community.
The issue hitting the baby boomer population, who were the real pioneers of craft cannabis growing (when it was simply known as “homegrown”), is how they will survive. Certainly being an outlaw grower did not add to your Social Security fund and it’s too late to go out and get another job now. While everyone else seems to think all pot growers have piles of money stashed in the hills, it simply is not true. Most outlaw farmers are not known for their pecuniary skills.
As for the children of growers, it is a difficult dilemma indeed. The second and third generation children of cannabis growers really don’t know how to do a whole lot more than grow cannabis, and talk cannabis and smoke cannabis. Many have the makings of master cultivators, yet they lack the skill of running a business in the world of legitimate sales. Dare I say they are spoiled by the hard-working but idyllic life their parents have enjoyed for years and they are ill-prepared to go out and develop new skills? In similar situations historically, be it with any crop on any continent, when the farming work dries up the kids move to the cities. The old family farm disappears. We all pray this does not happen in the Emerald Triangle.
How to solve these issues is a conundrum which challenges a compassionate heart. One person at the table suggested the state offer assistance as they would to any other farmer in distress. However, considering cannabis is wrongly considered a “product” and not a “crop” by the state, that is a long shot at this time. School programs at local county colleges were also an idea if we can convince people there is hope and a chance to start again in a new field. The canna-tourism field was also brought up as a place for new careers, although it will take some time for it to develop. These people need help now.
The emerging field of legal cannabis, which is touted to be such an economic boost to many, clearly has its drawbacks for those who are the very backbone of it. As the black market fades over the coming years, we will see a whole new group of people moving into these hills, onto beloved ranches and farms built by original growers. Some call it evolution, others call it devolution. We’ll go with the flow, but we pray for those washed away with the tide.
TELL US, are you concerned about longtime cannabis farmers losing their livelihood?