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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.

This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

The future of sustainable cannabis agriculture might reside in the practices of a third-generation Emerald Triangle farmer who introduced himself to me as Fuzzy. Based in Mendocino County, the 40-something’s flowers are perennial top-five finishers in California’s Emerald Cup  --  billed as the "World’s Only Organic Outdoor Cannabis Competition." When I asked him his secret on the redwood-enshrouded deck outside this year’s competition (the ninth annual) on December 15, his answer was more Gregor Mendel then Monsanto: “Local breeding and native soil. The guys that bring in bags of fake soil aren’t ever going to win.”

The very dankness of the rainforest ecosystem is what makes the resulting cannabis crop what it is (you couldn't do this in Nebraska, in other words). “Organic outdoor cannabis is our brand,” says Tim Blake, who founded and produces the Cup, as the competition is known regionally. “This is what we do.” 

For many local farmers, some of whom farm cannabis alongside grandparents who were 1970s back-to-the-landers, the concerns of the modern outdoor farmer are the concerns of every farmer since humans stopped hunting and gathering. Early autumn rains, for instance, threaten fragrantly flowering $20,000 plants with botrytis -- a kind of fungus also called bud rot -- a week before harvest.

Because of this isolation, prohibition, and now, cultural tradition, Northern California’s remote Emerald Triangle is poised to provide a model for a sustainable post-prohibition cannabis industry. This model was institutionalized in a landmark cannabis farmer permitting program by the Sheriff’s Department in Mendocino County in 2011. This farmer-owned, outdoor-cultivation model could counter some of the grow room-based models that are in danger of becoming institutionalized in the first U.S. states to re-legalize full adult use of the plant. 

Fuzzy told me that most of his neighbors have no problem saving the earth, but they aren’t growing pot to save humanity and they aren’t growing to get rich. “I do think about what I put into the soil and how I use water – poisons disgust me, but that’s just me – but even I think of myself more as a citizen, I dunno, enjoying the fruits of my labor than an activist. I’m just growing my plants and seeking contentment.”

In practice, though, Emerald Triangle farmers have found that sustainability and efficient farming often result in the same techniques. “I use organic methods because they work best,” Mendocino County farmer Jim Hill told me in the midst of a long lecture on native mushroom compost and bat guano. “I get the most effective medicine for patients.”  

“This is part of the larger food revolution we’re seeing everywhere,” Fuzzy told me during what became a sodden farmer caucus during a break between speakers at the Cup. The perennial Cup finalist’s own Sugaree strain was originally developed by a now-deceased local cancer patient named Sandy who was seeking appetite stimulation and relief from chemo. “She’d never imagine this strain being grown out of the sunlight,” Fuzzy told me. While thick, icy raindrops fell from redwood eaves, I thought about my own produce shopping preferences. I wouldn’t buy a spear of supermarket hothouse broccoli when there’s a local organic heirloom variety available at the weekend farmer’s market.

This kind of conversation was the reason I had come to give my own talk at the Cup: I believe that figuring out how to keep the cannabis industry decentralized, controlled by farmers, and sustainable once prohibition ends is a key piece in the “allow my kids to inherit an inhabitable planet” puzzle. An ecologically viable cannabis cultivation model must emerge to counter the diesel-powered grow room and nasty Avid (pesticide)-using model. Any human endeavor from this point on must establish a sustainable model right from the blueprint stage. It’s a matter of human survival. We don’t have the time or resources to initiate any more carbon-intensive industries. The good news is that cannabis is now, at the end of 2012, in the blueprint phase. I think we’re three to five years from full federal cannabis legalization.