Challenges Stack Up

Rural cannabis farmers like roughing it, but it’s getting really rough.

  • In Potter Valley, I spoke with cultivators who were evacuated for weeks, some of whom faced fires for the second time in a year.
  • At one intersection, I watched old farmers drive off with horse trailers full of cannabis plants.
  • A neighboring pig farmer said growers had cut through his fields at midnight to avoid the roadblock and rescue their plants, some leaving six-packs to smooth their passage.
  • At the local bar, staff handed out face masks leftover from last year’s fire. A parade of trucks passed by morning and evening, and patrons swapped stories about loved ones refusing to evacuate. Cash flow problems are mounting and credit is scarce.

Cornell had prepaid his 2018 local cultivation tax, $1 per square foot, a requirement to receive his local cultivation permit. “It’s a pretty low tax rate, but there’s no accounting for crop loss, catastrophe, etc. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I really wish we had pushed for a gross receipts tax, because shit happens, apparently,” he said ruefully. “The problem is the cashflow issue if you lose your crop.”

The day the Ranch Fire started, Cornell was installing posts for a security fence around his one-acre garden, a compliance requirement. The next day, he evacuated. The day after, his house and his compliance plan were ash. The lengthy county permitting process had one upside: A new greenhouse and processing building never got built, so they never burned.

Cannabis farmers operate with little to no access to crop insurance, and when fire comes, pot farmers aren’t allowed into evacuation zones to tend their crops like other farmers are allowed to. After the damage is done, little to no federal or state assistance exists.

California fire officials at the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection protect life first, then consider the community’s “economic base,” said Scott McLean, CalFire’s chief of public information. In the past, firefighters avoided entering pot farms for fear of being shot at or stepping in a trap. Today, “it’s a new direction now with the legalization,” and the agency follows law enforcement’s lead, addressing each situation individually.

Disaster aid and insurance is also inconsistent. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stated cannabis shouldn’t be an issue. But cannabis farmers are not eligible for emergency Small Business Administration loans. FEMA allocates up to $34,000 for fire victims, but the agency won’t cover crop losses or damage to agricultural buildings.

Private insurance markets are spotty at best. Homeowner’s insurance premiums in fire country are skyrocketing. Outdoor growers cannot get any crop insurance, said Ellen Komp, deputy director of California NORML.

Crop losses also extend beyond fire damage to smoke contamination. Cannabis’s delicate, resinous flower buds hit peak maturity in the October fire season. They absorb smoke particulates and the final product can end up smelling like a campfire, diminishing its value.

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Samantha Miller, president and chief scientist of Pure Analytics lab, tested samples from growers worried their crop wasn’t safe to consume. Aside from flame retardant, safety isn’t a big concern, Miller said. Wildfire smoke usually contains few harmful contaminants. Farmers’ biggest concern—beyond flowers covered with chemical retardant—is going broke when no one wants to buy what’s dubbed “campfire kush.”

For some, the wildfires mean doubling down on growing instead of calling it quits. We met one unlicensed grower, “Robert,” who said ashes have been falling on his illegal cannabis for weeks. The grower started another round of baby plants, called clones, in case he loses the mature crop to smoke damage. The size of his unpermitted garden has doubled.

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