Until a few days ago, 2020 was unquestionably the best year in a very long time for cannabis growers in the Emerald Triangle, the remote counties in far northern California where the economy runs on weed.

After years of crashing prices, the market for sun-grown cannabis was roaring back. Small farmers were making money again. Onerous regulations favoring big operators and steep licensing fees had driven many small cultivators out of business, but for those who managed to stick it out, 2020 seemed like the beginning of the reward. Legalization would actually work!

Then the lightning hit and the fires started, and 2020 came for the outdoor weed farmers.

California wildfires present a unique threat to the state's cannabis crop.
A view of the crop of Swami Select, a cannabis cultivator in California’s Mendocino County, … [+] FACEBOOK/SWAMI SELECT

According to multiple sources, hundreds of licensed cannabis growers in Humboldt and Mendocino counties have had to evacuate their farms over the past several days.Recommended For You

Damage estimates won’t be available for a few days more, but key growing regions in southern Humboldt and in the Bell Springs area in Mendocino are blanketed in smoke or threatened by flames, and in the crucial weeks ahead of the fall harvest.

“This is the heartland of the Emerald Triangle,” said Kristin Nevedal, the executive director of the International Cannabis Farmers Association, who lives in southern Humboldt County.

Nevedal woke to the same orange sky Wednesday seen in San Francisco, several hours to the south, and was under an evacuation watch as many other farmers to her east and south were forced to flee. But even a watch spells trouble.

Wildfires present a unique danger to cannabis, widely touted as California’s most lucrative cannabis crop.

Put simply, there is no other crop in the state quite so vulnerable to fires—and no industry with less help available to it after such a disaster.

“It is potentially a widespread crop loss situation,” Nevedal said.

Cannabis is uniquely sensitive to wildfires because it is grown in wildfire zones. This is not a foolish or antiquated decision. It’s good agriculture and good business.

Cannabis simply does well in mountainous areas with hot days and cool nights. While it is true you can grow weed almost anywhere, including indoors, the mountainous and remote areas of northern California—initially chosen because it is remote and far away from law enforcement—have proven particularly suited to growing weed. These areas have also proven to be effective at growing exceptionally good cannabis, with flavor and cannabinoid profiles that simply can’t quite be replicated indoors or in greenhouses in Monterey or Santa Barbara counties.

Good weed grows well in wildfire zones. That’s just how it is.

Small Marijuana Farms In Northern California
HUMBOLDT COUNTY, CA, MAY 5: Sunshine Johnston, 43, grows cannabis with her husband Eric, 41, on a … [+] LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES

Other than wine grapes, California’s other main agricultural crops are generally grown far away from where forest fires strike most often—in the state’s Central and Salinas valleys, in vast fields.

HUMBOLDT COUNTY, CA - MARCH 6: The Eel River snakes past Humbol
HUMBOLDT COUNTY, CA – MARCH 6: The Eel River snakes past Humboldt Redwoods State Park in Humboldt … [+] THE WASHINGTON POST VIA GETTY IMAGES

While smoke and ash from wildfires can damage wine grapes and make the vintage unsavory, wildfire smoke is a mortal threat to cannabis, an aromatic flower that’s consumed by smoking. Even if outdoor cannabis plants are spared death from flames, smoke and ash from miles away—such as the immense pall blanketing California, blotting out the sun, and rendering the daytime sun an eerie, dim orange haze—can taint a crop, wrecking its aroma and flavor and rendering it worthless with no chance of recovery. You can wash off fruit you eat; you can’t clean smoke and ash from a sticky flower you smoke.

Wildfires struck legal cannabis farmers hard in 2017, when fire hit the Redwood Valley in Mendocino County. So far, the Hopkins Fire in Humboldt appears to have directly affected fewer farms, but “this one has the potential to do some damage,” said Nicholas Smilgys, who operates a distribution company in Mendocino. “Obviously a lot of traditional farmers will be hurt by this.”

Chris Anderson is the founder and CEO of Redwood Roots, a licensed cannabis distribution company located near Garberville in southern Humboldt, where he brings the harvests of about 200 farms to markets in urban areas far to the south. With “four vans and three trucks and trailers,” he and his company spent all day Wednesday evacuating people and product from the fire zone to safer areas to the west and north.

As much as one-third of all the licensed cannabis production in all of California is in Humboldt County, Anderson pointed out. “I do know that the smoke damage and the ash damage will be very significant,” he said via phone on Wednesday evening. “Whether people have had to evacuate or not, their crops will be affected.”

“It’s going to be significantly difficult for cannabis farmers.”

The fires highlight the unequal treatment offered legal cannabis cultivators by the banking and insurance industries. Marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. So risk-averse banks don’t offer loans or even accounts. Insurers that might underwrite a farmer’s crop also stay away. Relief, if it does home, will probably have to come from the cash-strapped state of California, where the state budget has been wrecked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the farmers who managed to avoid destruction by both fire and smoke, 2021 may be even better than 2020. After all, they’ll have less competition to deal with. “I foresee a very good year for farmers that make it through these fires,” Anderson said. “But quite a few farmers’ products will be tainted, if not ruined. My heart goes out to those people.”

And there are still two months left in peak fire season.

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