Northern California Wildfires Are Devastating the Area's Cannabis Crop
The world’s marijuana growing mecca is in the middle of harvest season, but raging fires are threatening to put tons of product and millions in potential profits up in smoke.
Published on October 10, 2017

In Northern California, Fall means more than leaves changing colors, squash and pumpkins, with hordes of “trimmigrants” heading for the hills and a spike in scissor sales marking the world’s most important annual cannabis harvest. This year though, as thousands of farmers and their trimming assistants prepare this year’s crop for the medical market, personal use and illegal out of state sales, a series of wildfires is raging through Sonoma and Napa counties, destroying homes, businesses, vineyards, and, yes, cannabis farms. 

Most of Northern California’s commercial cannabis production is based in the emerald triangle of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties, but according to the San Francisco Chronicle, Sonoma County (directly south of Mendocino) is home to anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 marijuana farms, with revenue from the cash crop bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to the area.

“It’s located right there between three counties where so much of our product comes from, and its proximity to the Bay Area makes it a huge marketplace, with a lot of processing and manufacturing; just a huge industrial leader in general.” California Growers Association Executive Director Hezekiah Allen said.

On a weekly conference call of the Growers Association, 6 of 18 of the group’s regional leaders were being evacuated due to the fire or out helping neighbors being evacuated. 

“We’re expecting some pretty significant property damage,” Allen said. “As damage numbers emerge, it’s going to be pretty stunning on all fronts, and certainly our membership has been directly impacted.”

For SPARC farms, a commercial grower in Sonoma County’s Glen Ellen, plans to trim the company’s outdoor crop today have been postponed, but a number of employees and SPARC farms director Erich Pearson have refused to evacuate with the rest of their neighbors, choosing instead to stand by their plants until it is no longer possible.

“We are safe but these fires in Sonoma Valley are really bad.” Pearson posted on social media early Monday. “Winds are too strong and it’s too dark to fly planes. Trinity Oaks neighborhood is gone.”

Even in the face of evacuation orders, the value of the area’s cannabis crop is enormous, and enterprising thieves are no doubt waiting in the wings to pounce on evacuated and abandoned farms ripe with ready to pick product. 

“Erich is up there,” an anonymous SPARC farms staffer told the Chronicle. “He is in there, in the middle of it.”

But while Pearson and employees try their best to wait out the flames, the anonymous staffer confirmed that, “Our farm has experienced some pretty substantial damage.”

At the nearby Sonoma County Cannabis Company, fire has already hit, with little optimism about the rest of the company’s crop.

“There are no words right now to describe the loss, the heartbreak and the trauma that our beloved home and community is going through,” the Sonoma County Company wrote in an Instagram post. “We are trying to save what we can.” 

For the weed that makes it to the other side of harvest, intense amounts of smoke covering the area will create a larger chance for problems like mildew, mold and fungus, and add a hint of unexpected flavor to any bud that actually makes its way to market. 

“Especially when it’s ripe — I can tell you from personal experience, wildfire definitely will make your cannabis have a smoky flavor to it; just like wine,” Kristin Nevedal, executive director of the International Cannabis Farmers Association, said.

With this year marking the last California cannabis harvest before recreational and revised medical regulations go into effect next year, a number of the area’s producers are hoping this year’s product will fund their move to the new, expensive, legitimate industry. Without product to fund licensing, testing and location regulations, companies hurt by fire could have an increasingly difficult time getting into the Golden State’s legal recreational market.

Lighter winds slowed the fires overnight, but as of press time flames are still out of control across Sonoma and Napa counties, with at least 11 reported fatalities and over 150 people missing. 

MERRY JANE’s love and thoughts go out to everyone affected and still fighting in Northern California.

Zach Harris
Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.
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