Big Marijuana vs. craft weed: Will cannabis conglomerates ruin small family farms?

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The first time I stepped foot on a marijuana farm, I couldn’t see a thing. It was late at night, and it had taken me almost twenty-four hours to get there from Miami, Florida. I had been working on an article about the water rights of marijuana farmers for the past few months, but since most of these farmers aren’t in the habit of discussing their personal matters online or over the phone, I decided to get on a plane to San Francisco and go straight to the source. My destination was in Humboldt County, one of three counties in northern California that make up the “Emerald Triangle,” the agricultural heart and soul of the marijuana industry.

When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, my host, Jack, led me to the cabin where I’d be staying. But the cabin was no ordinary cabin. An adjacent room was filled with oak barrels holding Syrah and Cabernet, and a veranda looked out onto several acres of vineyard. “That’s unusual,” I thought to myself. Touring the farm the next day, Jack showed me his marijuana plants. They were growing vigorously under the California sun, organized in neat rows and labeled with identifying notes. The operation was all very professional, with precise methods for watering, nurturing, and harvesting the plants. Timing was of the essence, Jack told me. Fall out of step with the sun’s rhythms, and a crop’s growth cycle would be disrupted. Though northern California was a hotbed of marijuana cultivation, Jack’s business was thriving because of a meticulous attention to detail. His marijuana fetched prices that reflected a quality product.

Jack is a viticulturist, winemaker, forest manager, and marijuana farmer, among other trades. He is a student of agriculture, having apprenticed with Cuban tobacco farmers, Senegalese goat herders, and French vintners when he was in his early twenties. When his education took him to the Emerald Triangle, he knew he had found his calling. Jack has a knack for growing plants, and perhaps more importantly, for cultivating the human relationships that businesses need to survive. Both are vital traits for a marijuana farmer in these legally ambiguous times.Click for Sound

One of the relationships Jack cultivates is the one he has with me. In addition to being my host, Jack is also my friend—we’ve known each other since before I can remember. Knowing him, I wasn’t surprised to see him engaged in all manner of small-scale agriculture. But when he introduced me to other farmers in the region, the story was much the same; the farmers were passionate about their craft, though in many cases marijuana wasn’t the only crop under cultivation. In addition to grapes, farmers grew and marketed seasonal fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Many raised chickens and honey bees, or stocked fish in nearby ponds. Theirs is a homesteading lifestyle, and the remote, isolated nature of marijuana farming requires a diverse skill set. You don’t have to go far to find skilled carpenters, cooks, or musicians. A laborer might harvest marijuana one week, and guide rafting trips the next. It is an intimate and tight-knit community, where one person can be a friend, a tenant, and an employee all at the same time. These days, the local police are fond of saying that raids are “complaint-driven.” True or not, farming communities seem to believe the mantra, and take every measure to maintain the peace.

Some of the older generation of farmers have been in Humboldt County for decades, and they bring wisdom and institutional memory to the region. Many settled in northern California during the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s, when progressives fled their city lives in exchange for a more rural, ecologically connected existence. Others came as mining or timber workers, found paradise, and never left. Today many farmers are young and ambitious “ganjapreneurs,” but the ethics of the older generation are still reflected in the community’s reverence for self-reliance and sustainability.

Jack made sure I was introduced to an older couple who had been hosting open-to-anyone “Sunday Waffles” parties every week for over four decades. He was anxious for me to try their fifty-year-old sourdough culture, hoping it would be as delightful a culinary experience for me as it is for him (it was). Other comically wholesome events in the community include Wednesday afternoon barbeques at the fire station, twice-weekly volleyball games, and a community potluck every third Thursday. I attended as many of these gatherings as I could, and as Jack’s guest I was welcomed with open arms. After all was said and done, my first visit to Humboldt County left me with an idyllic image of the modern-day marijuana farming community.

Needless to say, these scenes ran counter to my expectations. My research on marijuana farms to that point had consisted largely of the descriptions contained in news reports of police raids. Typically, those farms were either trespass grows (short-term, large-scale operations on public lands, a method used to reduce one’s exposure and liability) or bare-bones private grows with transient tenants. In both cases, the scene was similar. Land gets cleared, makeshift irrigation schemes suck water from nearby streams, trash and propane canisters are strewn about haphazardly, and all types of fertilizers and pesticides are used to maximize yields as quickly as possible.

The marijuana farmers I met painted a decidedly different picture. Theirs is a farming community in tune with itself, the land, and the industry it wants to be a part of. Farmers owned their own land, took care of a familiar crew of workers, and complied with local regulations (to the extent there are any). The marijuana farmers I met were engaged in the kind of local, sustainable, high-quality, small-scale agriculture that the modern food movement likes to put on a pedestal. Cultivating marijuana had revitalized the idea of the American family farm.

At least in this remote corner of the country it had. Elsewhere, the prospects for marijuana agriculture were less rosy. Colorado’s nascent marijuana industry—state-legal since 2012—was struggling to navigate a farming culture that assumed cultivation should take place indoors, in large warehouses, where conditions can be controlled but energy costs are sky-high. In Ohio, marijuana legalization advocates were forced to lobby against a legalization initiative in 2015. The measure would have granted exclusive farming rights to a select few well-connected companies. Not surprisingly, the proposed oligopoly didn’t sit well with the majority of Ohio voters.

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