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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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Something Like a Wine Tasting

The Redneck Hippie has been a renegade for three generations, and the local ethic is emerging at the dawn of legality to provide the $35-billion-a-year national cannabis industry with a way to be a sustainable, profitable, ultimate top-shelf and healthy crop. That’s a pretty astounding three-decade rise in public station for cultivators of the plant, and it’s not one all of them can easily handle: plenty of farmers I met at the Cup still say they oppose legalization, though they know the battle to remain profitable outlaws is a losing one.

Will the Redneck Hippie survive the inevitable period of instability and likely price drops that will follow the start of the Drug Peace era? “I think so,” said Cup organizer Blake. “We’re a culture. Look at us here today. We’re celebrating a lifestyle. And we look out for one another.”

Plus, the sheriff-supported (and -supporting) Mendocino permitting model allows for a farmer-centric way to develop the cannabis economy. Before federal raids shut down the Mendocino Zip-tie program (named for the bright yellow bracelets the sheriff issued to every permitted plant), local farmers were discussing ambitious plans to centralize payroll, quality testing and the always stressful post-harvest process of bud trimming.

Beyond the growing popularity and coverage of the Emerald Cup, the branding of this culture and its famous flowers is already underway. “We want people to associate the Emerald Triangle with top shelf cannabis the way they do Napa with wine and wine tourism,” explains Tomas Balogh, board member of the EGA, which has been around in some form for four years. “We think that after prohibition, consumers will want see a regional certification that ensures they are supporting sustainable farming practices.” 

Is this long-view message resonating within the sometimes inward looking Emerald Triangle farming community? Most of the two dozen farmers I spoke with at the 2012 Emerald Cup were well aware that the plant being honored that day cumulatively comprises an industry worth $6 billion to the economy of Mendocino County alone in 2010. For the bulk of the Cup’s 200-plus entrants, their work is still about mortgage payments and college tuition. Most told me they want whatever will provide the best prices next harvest. But almost everyone is bracing to wake up one day soon as law-abiding citizens whether they like it or not. The ones who plan, the ones who are good, will thrive. Many will fail. It’s called capitalism.

The world-wide post-drug war cannabis industry train has left the station. While he wouldn’t say the EGA has gained overwhelming traction with longtime black-market farmers as yet, Balogh says the group is working one by one to convince farmers that some kind of “Emerald Certification” will provide a valuable marketing tool when the chaotic dust of federal legalization settles. 

Working against the Emerald farmer organization is the longstanding cultivator fear that legalization will bring about the Coors or Marlboro version of cannabis production. I think that concern is legitimate -- for the run-of-the-mill farmer. But millions of consumers are going to be seeking the cannabis version of Fat Tire Ale. If the region’s cultivators band together to aim for the microbrew aficionado, the EGA thinking goes, there’s nothing to fear from Coors. Craft beer was a $7.6 billion market in 2010.

For the plan to work, sustainable practices have to be taught, followed and certified in the Emerald Triangle. Especially to newer and younger farmers. Even Fuzzy got serious for a moment when I asked him if, alongside his own efficiently drip-irrigated crops, he sees non-sustainable practices, such as river diversion, among his farming neighbors. “We do need standards,” he admitted. “But this is basically the Emerald Cup creed: we come here to talk and to learn.”