Is the Marijuana Industry Green Enough?

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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.

Now, cannabis industry players, from farmers to automatic bud trimmer makers might be wondering what can be done to make sure the planet’s greenest industry is born Green. This is not just a simple matter of “sungrown” outdoor versus generally more energy-intensive indoor cannabis cultivation, though that’s a major factor. It is about incorporating sustainable cannabis methods no matter how and where the plant is cultivated – and this includes the industrial side (hemp) in places like North Dakota. 

If I weren’t already driving on vegetable oil and being routinely outwitted by goats, I would have become aware of the sustainable cannabis imperative when Nobel Laureate Evan Mills, a researcher on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change team that won the prize, approached me after an live event I was doing in support of my recent book. As a follow-up project to his UN panel work, Mills had in 2011 published a much-discussed report on the energy demand of California’s (mostly indoor-grown) cannabis industry (which he concluded is responsible for 3% of all of California’s energy use). 

Our email dialogue since meeting has been spirited: as a guy who has visited probably three dozen cannabis farms, both indoor and outdoor, in the course of my research, I find myself with notes on farming techniques that not only help with my own tomatoes and beans, but which represent the cutting edge of an agricultural sector that Michael Pollan describes as including “the best farmers of my generation.” Yet exchanges with Mills always force me to ask critical questions like, “Is that farmer’s drip irrigation technique really sustainable?”

Although I have written about intentionally sustainable, locavore, taxpaying outdoor cannabis farmers, I’d have to be blind not to be aware that a segment of the outdoor farming community in the U.S. and Mexico requires as much education as indoor gardeners do when it comes to issues like waterway diversion and pesticide use. At the same time, several indoor cultivators I’ve met, forced by prohibition to hide from the best and cheapest light source there is (the sun), are genuinely trying to make their crop as healthy and sustainable as possible. 

That’s why, long-time attendees say, education – a chance for remote farmers to come together and network -- is really why the Emerald Cup exists. I devoted my own talk to the importance of a locally branded sustainable practices and certifications. Most farmers here in the Emerald Triangle get it. A third-generation Humboldt County farmer named Mike told me as he stared admiringly at the rows of finalist buds behind the glass display at the Emerald Cup’s straw bale-lined Growers’ Tent, “You just don’t need to do it indoors – it’s better without all the equipment and chemicals. The plants adapt to the climate. Why wouldn’t I use God’s own sun instead of a generator?”

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Case in point, this year’s winner of the Emerald Cup grand prize (a trip to Jamaica), Leo Bell of nearby Laytonville (for his “exceptionally smooth, enticing and very sticky…nasturtium-scented” Chem Dawg strain, according to judges). The 30-something Bell said that his farm’s well only fills a single five-gallon bucket every few minutes, so for 10 months he watered his "girls” by hand with a cup (all psychoactive cannabis plants are females). Bell noted in his victory speech that during the 2012 Emerald Triangle growing season, “I gave my heart to these plants, five hours every day.”

If all of humanity’s agricultural engineers operated according to such principles, climate change would be a much more relaxed discussion. True, this isn’t the era of the Little House on the Prairie books that I read to my toddler. But the aboveground, regulated, taxpaying cannabis industry enjoys the great fortune to be born now and born massive, when we know that all capitalism (not just agricultural capitalism) must be conducted while considering the earth and her resources as a finite system for which we are collectively, as humans, responsible. If you’ve got an interest in our species surviving the next century, this moment presents the opportunity for the cannabis industry to chart the very best course, or the very worst. 

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.

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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.”

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department sergeant who ran the Zip-tie cannabis permitting program told me that getting former black-market farmers together to form a business plan is “like herding cats.” Those cats are going to have to herd themselves, and soon, if the outdoor/organic farming side of the coming legal cannabis industry is going to stake its claim and ensure that a high volume, energy-intensive indoor cultivation model isn't just assumed to be the default one. 

It's a small planet, and the EGA’s Balogh says that cultivators of America’s number-one crop have to prepare now to take advantage of the legalization free-for-all and emerge as the world’s number-one sustainable crop. “We don’t have a choice with this,” he says. “We have to get it right.”

(All photographs in this article -- credit to author Doug Fine)


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