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Is the Marijuana Industry Green Enough?

A trip to the Emerald Cup, an outdoor organic marijuana growers' competition, reveals the environmental potential of the cannabis industry.

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On the dark side, you have the drug war-inspired violent cartels, profiteers and poison pesticide purveyors that prohibition economies create. On the positive side, think of the Doctor Bronner’s Soap model, where organic and fair-trade principles are embedded in every product (many of which derive from hemp) and the CEO makes five times the salary of the lowest-paid employee. This is the model that the farmers of the Emerald Growers Association trade group (EGA) are using as they brand the region’s sustainable, farmer-owned cannabis crop in anticipation of a time when busy moms in the Whole Foods cannabis section will be seeking “organic, fairly traded, local farmer-owned” plants for Sunday’s Super Bowl party dip

When I’m in the Emerald Triangle, I often hear the people who made the decision to farm organically a few generations ago complain about young newcomers who don’t pull up their pants high enough and don’t understand their relationship with the earth. “They understand their relationship to the economy,” the third-generation cultivator Mike told me. “We're organic, vegetarian people in our lives, and so of course we carry that into our cultivation,” a farmer named Opa told me.

Although Cup founder Blake is one of the key guys branding the region (comprising Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties near the Oregon border) as providing the world’s top-shelf organic cannabis, he said he doesn’t explicitly see the Emerald Triangle model as a competitive counterpoint to, say, Colorado’s initial indoor focus. That, though, is because he’s of necessity thinking locally. 

“Until the feds stop coming after us up here, our lifestyle is under threat.” In other words, he’s not worrying about comparing his region’s carbon footprint to that of other states right now. The threat Blake’s referring to is the 2011 federal assault on the wildly successful, revenue-generating, crime-reducing Mendocino County Zip-tie cannabis permitting program, of which he was an early member.

As for farmer Fuzzy’s point about the importance of native soil, he is spot-on: when I visited a local cannabis strain developer named Rock on his coastal farm, he showed me that his technique basically involves crossing two promising strains and seeing if they like the local dirt. And Rock’s strains have placed very high at past Emerald Cups. (Lately he’s been pursuing a strain that has a high percentage of the promising cancer fighting non-psychoactive cannabis component known as CBD.) 

The point is, the Emerald Triangle’s barn-side genetics laboratories work. The flowers from these foggy hills are craved world-wide, though of course to be legal medical cannabis providers, all California farmers must (for now) only supply patients in-state.

My year of touring cannabis farms has taught me that without question, no hydroponic garden store soil mix can approach the complex microbial soup found in a mature Emerald Triangle farm. As Cup judge Pearl Moon (dean of the 707 Cannabis College a few blocks away from the festivities) put it, the reason why the region’s crop is world renowned is that “You can always taste the Mendo[cino County] in the medicine.” 

These are the same regional conditions that long ago branded places like Champagne, France and Parmesan, Italy: you can’t, by international law, call the same cheese from somewhere else by the name Parmesan. And only family-level farming allows the kind of tender loving care that results in such universally accepted branding. “Water your plants with a cup while singing to them” could never be taught at an ag school or a tractor design lab.

The outdoor farming ethic is so engrained here in the redwoods, it’s not just part of the Emerald Cup rules (this year’s second place cultivator’s flower was disqualified when it was revealed that he’d “finished” the plant for a week inside), it’s an essential component of the culture. Just look at the expression on each farmer’s face in this photo as they examine Cup finalists on display in categories like flowers, edibles, concentrates, and a batch of amber, caramel-looking “super concentrates” (whatever those are). You can see that the Emerald Cup is like any trade group coming together at a convention to honor its best. To celebrate itself.