California. The land of milk and honey. Where people around the world have come to both extract the precious resources and make their fortunes. Starting during the gold rush, through the timber harvests and continuing today with marijuana. All of these resources have had their inception, boom years and the inevitable moment when we look around and see the devastation the once-championed industry has caused. Marijuana has followed these trends and has proven to be no different. That is the sad reality so many of us within the cannabis industry were slow to recognize, and so many refuse to acknowledge still today. The demand for California’s high-quality cannabis is stronger than ever, despite the massive environmental impacts the industry has caused much of the state. Nowhere can the industry’s impact been seen more than the Emerald Triangle, considered ground zero for the California marijuana industry.
The year 2015 began in a deeper and more extended drought than ever before in the history of the state. The previous year had been difficult with thousands of acres of farmland pulled out of production due to the lack of a legal water supply, and the winter of 2014-15 brought no relief. While inspecting cannabis farms along the Sierra Mountains in February, I camped out near Donner Pass. Instead of hurrying over the mountains, fearful of a snow storm, I slept out under the stars on a warm night along one of the depleted reservoirs near Highway 80. In the middle of the night, I was awakened by a dust storm so strong the sand and grit etched the windows of my van.
By early spring, with rain a distant memory, the cannabis nurseries and light dep industry was in full bloom as if it had rained all winter. Early in the season the nurseries I visited were expanding and growing a record number of clones, not just for the full season crop, but for the exploding light dep industry, as well, where plants are started earlier, grown under hoop houses to about three feet tall, then tricked into flowering early by pulling tarps over the houses to create 12 hours of darkness.
Five years ago, the light dep industry began as a way of capturing the higher market price caused by the decline in supply from the previous year’s full-season outdoor crop. This innovative way to grow cannabis brought fresh flowers to the market in June instead of November and allowed a farmer to get two crops a season, while cashing in on the seasonal price spike. However, as the quality and market acceptance grew, so did the number of plants cultivated in this manner. Today the light deprivation supply of cannabis has erased that price spike by expanding to meet the demand. In some areas, entire hilltops have been illegally bulldozed, leveled, the timber pushed over the side of the mountain and a series of greenhouses constructed to pump out tens of thousands of cannabis plants.
Early this season, resource managers and ordinary people were bewildered about why the creeks were drying up at elevations higher than standard agriculture (vineyards and orchards). Creeks that would normally flow into the salmon-bearing rivers were simply disconnecting or being reduced to a trickle. Earlier than I’ve seen in 40 years, the rivers below were looking as if autumn had already come — low flow rates, stagnant water, algal blooms and poor water quality. The drought certainly was a factor, but a new major factor was the explosion of the light dep industry. At a time of year when the full season outdoor crops would be using little water, maintaining their young plants, the largely illegal light dep industry was watering large plants in the vegetative state, pushing them to grow before the start of flowering. This heavy water use early in the season for cannabis was unprecedented. In addition to the increased number of plants, the 2015 season was hotter earlier than ever before recorded. It was a perfect storm of environmental destruction.
In the meantime many political lobbyists for the cannabis industry were putting pressure on county supervisors to allow larger crops while reducing the regulatory oversight required of every other form of agriculture in the Golden State. Again the perfect storm. This was made evident with the large-scale busts that occurred on Island Mountain in the heart of the Emerald Triangle. Search “Island Mountain arrests” to see the photos of the destruction that had been occurring for years but made so much worse by the expansion of the industry. The collision was made clear on a radio talk show when a mother called to say that young children were out of school for the summer but unable to swim in the rivers because the algal blooms had arrived months early. Think of the ramifications of this — youths, summer, swimming in the rivers — gone. That mother’s anger at the cannabis industry put the entire issue in focus.
However, to be very clear, the large-scale bad actors do not represent the many fine people in the California cannabis industry who grow a world-class product while taking stewardship of their lands and ours. There are many fine examples to look toward for a way to move into the future.
Only a few years ago, water use was not a consideration in cannabis farming. Smart pots above ground were filled with purchased soils and plants were grown in 600-gallon fabric containers. These above-ground containers use more water as the sides evaporate irrigated water into the summer sun. Heat buildup in the pots required up to 15 gallons a day toward the end of the season when the plants could be 10 feet tall and the temperatures soar beyond 90 degrees. Today, responsible growers have stopped using this method or they have modified its use. Now the pots may be buried halfway, and the bottoms opened so the roots of the plants can grow into the natural soil, conserving water. Heavy mulching with compost or straw keeps the soil cooler and allows the containers to retain the water that is given to the plants. Many farmers are forgoing the pots altogether and are planting their crops directly into the ground, further conserving water. Only a few years ago, farmers watered their crops with hoses and hand wands; now drip irrigation is being used under the heavy mulching or straw. Seeing these practices become more common gives me great hope and pride in the future of the cannabis industry and in the California farmer. These practices have reduced the water required to grow a cannabis plant by half over what was used just a few years ago. These are the farmers that show us how to move forward.
As we move into the future of cannabis farming, sensible water usage in the salmon-producing counties of Northern California will continue to be a major factor in the industry’s growth. Rain water catchment and high water forbearance are the two most sustainable methods of acquiring water. High water forbearance is when water is captured and stored in ponds or tanks during the high water flows of winter. The 2014-2015 winter season provided only a few days of high water and all of that was needed for the forests and fish. Therefore, rain water catchment becomes the best method. Rain water catchment can occur in both ponds and tanks. Many of the ponds I have seen throughout California are permitted, constructed properly and provide much-needed habitat in an otherwise dry area. I have seen ponds that are established and surrounded by trees and vegetative cover. These habitats are used by the region’s wildlife, birds, cats, bears and wild pigs (although their numbers need to be reduced). They capture rain water that runs down the hills into the ponds.
Another method anybody can use to capture the rain that falls on the farm and greenhouse roofs. Each inch of rain on 1,000 square feet of roof provides 550 gallons of water that can be used for the growing season. There is an initial cost outlay of either ponds or tanks but the pay-off comes after the fifth year.
One simple way of managing the cannabis industry’s growth is to require the storage of the water used for the crop. This would encourage sound investment, as well as limit the size of the growing operations. This would also provide incentives for water conservation methods.
As cannabis legalization moves forward, other farming regions better suited to the water-loving plant will emerge as major producers. The California counties in the northern central valley are gifted with deep fertile soils and more stable water supplies than the marginal soils and steep hillsides of the coastal counties. Even here, the drought is taking its toll on the water available for all agriculture. Nonetheless, the flat valley soils with abundant sun are better suited for the larger-scale production legalization will require.
The politics of marijuana in California are developing again with numerous proposals on the table. While these are still being redrafted there are a couple of important items I hope will be maintained. California has a long history of agricultural regulation which has allowed the agricultural industry to flourish on many levels. Of most importance to the small farmer is the ability to participate in the industry as it expands under legalization and to be able to sell directly to the final consumer. In California there are regulations in place to preserve the right for small farmers to sell directly to the final consumer via farmers markets and fruit stands. This direct connection between consumer and farmer is important both economically and socially for the small farmer. In my opinion, any proposals that would eliminate this current agricultural right by restrictions on licensing would be bad for the small farmer and the economy of California. There is much greater economic benefit to the state as a whole when many individual farmers are allowed to participate. License restrictions, high entrance costs and vertical integration requirements restrict the legal market to a limited number of deep-pocketed investors. A policy such as this would fail in California from the beginning. There is simply too large of a growing community in California, and people have simply become accustomed to growing their own cannabis or helping a neighbor with their grow. To be successful in California, any future regulations will need to allow individuals to grow their own, and to allow small farmers to sell directly to patients and customers.
Cannabis farming in California has a bright future. It is the state’s largest agricultural crop in terms of dollars and this projection will surely continue as legalization moves forward. Weather, soil type and name recognition assure California’s place in the industry. Conscientious cannabis farmers are providing examples of how the industry can move into sustainability. All cannabis farmers need to follow their lead to participate in this bright future.
Chris Van Hook is a medical cannabis compliance attorney in California. He is the director of the Clean Green Certified Program, a program for cannabis farming based on the USDA National Organic Program.