In recent years, the demand for legal marijuana has expanded considerably. In turn, this has created a boom in the legal cannabis cultivation industry. But despite the improved marketplace, the intensifying climate crisis is bringing new risks to the cannabis farms.
The Expansion Legal Cannabis Farms
Until 2012, cannabis farming in the United States was largely a criminal enterprise. The original pioneers in commercial-scale cannabis cultivation faced all the dangers of dealing with criminals and being pursued by law enforcement agencies. In the years since 2012, adult recreational marijuana use has become legal in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Medical marijuana legality, which has been state sanctioned longer than recreational use, has expanded to include 36 states.
Green-rush growers who stepped in to harvest legal marijuana profits post-decriminalization are far less likely to face incarceration and violence than the clandestine farmers of the past. Still, cannabis farming in a government regulated marijuana economy is a risky business. The regulation-abiding cannabis farmer is faced with daunting taxation policies, licensing fees, environmental impact obligations, product inspections, and an overlay of an always looming federal prohibition.
The Threat of Climate Change to Cannabis Farming
Destructive forces of nature don’t care if the outdoor cannabis farmer is engaged in illegal marijuana growing operations or planting and harvesting according to government regulations. Weather borne enemies of open-air cannabis cultivation include drought, flood, snow, frost, and heat stress.
All of these risks to outdoor cannabis farming pale in comparison to the hellfire havoc wrought upon cannabis farmers by increasingly prolonged and widespread wildfire seasons.
Anyone who breathed California’s air during fall 2020 can attest that the worst wildfire season ever recorded ravaged forests and cultivated land areas throughout the West Coast. During that unprecedented season of raging infernos, the United States was being dried out by the country’s most extensive drought since 2013. That tinderbox combination racked up more than 5 million acres of scorched land.
Many open-air and outdoor greenhouse cannabis farmers found their operations directly in the path of conflagration. No operator of outdoor marijuana cultivation can consider their farm safe from the next wildfire season. The risk of wildfire destruction to cannabis farming operations is worse than the danger faced by farmers of traditional crops. Cannabis farmers have no way to recoup losses due to wildfires. Insurance companies, for the most part, shy away from writing policies for marijuana growing operations. A wildfire loss can mean total ruin to an outdoor-cannabis farmer.
The Future of Cannabis Farming in Light of Climate Change
With the risk of wildfire devastation always looming over outdoor cannabis farming, why do outdoor marijuana growers persist? One answer is that sun-ripened cannabis is preferred by a large discerning segment of legal marijuana users, both medical and recreational. Open-air farmed cannabis is experienced as natural, more organic and a sustainable option to product that has been cultivated indoors under artificial light with piped-in climate controlled air. The analogy of indoor marijuana cultivation being akin to factory farming of livestock is flawed but hard to resist, especially among a segment of user connoisseurs who prefer outdoor, O.G. (ocean grown) product.
While acknowledging that most consumers spend their money on cannabis cultivated indoors, a February 2020 ECO Cannabis report lists the perceived advantages of so-called sungrown marijuana products as subtlety of flavor mixed with complexity and depth of terpenes.
Terpenes are defined as “the volatile unsaturated hydrocarbons found in the essential oils of plants.” More than 100 terpenes have so far been cataloged in the cannabis plant. Some cannabis terpenes have been linked to specific effects of individual strains, such as myrcene being associated with relaxation.
As distinctive and aromatic as terpenes can be, ECO Cannabis believes that the preference for sungrown cannabis products is that marijuana grown in a natural farming setting leaves behind a much lighter carbon footprint than indoor farmed cannabis.
Joy Hollingsworth, owner-operator of the Hollingsworth Cannabis Company in rural Washington State, cultivates her Hollingsworth Cannabis Company products in open-air greenhouses. Although the Hollingsworth Cannabis Company suffered no direct burns in 2020’s unnaturally but increasingly common destructive wildfire season, escaping incineration doesn’t mean the cannabis crop is unscathed. If wildfires break out while cannabis plants are in the flowering stage of cultivation, ash, soot, and fire retardants swirling in the air can adhere to the resin seeping from the fresh buds.
Following the wildfire season, Joy Hollingsworth told the New York Times that her plants “are not perking up as much as they usually do. Sunrays, they can’t filter through the smoke. We really rely on the greatest resource the planet has ever known, which is the sun, for us to grow.”
Hollingsworth and other sungrown cannabis farmers, many of them small family operators, are not allowing wildfire seasons to chase them out of the legal cannabis cultivation business.
Sungrown operators interviewed by the New York Times say they can plant their cannabis crops on a schedule to be harvested prior to the peak September wildfire season. Some outdoor cannabis growers plan to altogether avoid cannabis varieties that tend to be ready for harvest at the end of August and into September. Still other farmers committed to providing open-air cannabis to sungrown connoisseurs intend to do “late replants” or even sow a second crop in November.
For Joy Hollingsworth, the choice to maintain her family’s sungrown cannabis operation is about principles. “I hope that we can continue on this pathway of growing sustainable cannabis and showing people that it can be done,” she said.
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