It was supposed to be a banner year for the newly legitimized marijuana industry in California, with growers who had until now been operating under medical cannabis licenses preparing to supply a freshly legal recreational market starting on New Year's Day. The crops were being harvested ahead of late-fall rains, buds reaching the peak of their fullness, drying rooms full, supplies getting ready for a gold rush of sales. And then came the night of October 8, and for some cannabis farmers who leveraged their life savings in preparation for a certain boom, there is nothing left.
The complete numbers, which will need to be gathered from a patchwork of farms large and small spread across Sonoma and Mendocino counties, won't be known for some time, and even the growers themselves will acknowledge that their losses likely don't compare with the thousands who have lost their family homes, and the dozens and counting who have lost loved ones in these simultaneous fires ravaging wine country and more northern and eastern parts of the state. But unlike wine grapes which can be insured against drought and disasters, the burgeoning marijuana industry is a brave new world of entrepreneurs, most of whom did not have crop insurance which itself is an expensive, unreliable and newly specialized form of private insurance that isn't backed by any federally licensed financial institutions, because marijuana remains federally illegal.
So far, the fires have consumed almost 200,000 acres of land in what is one of the prime marijuana growing regions in the state, home to thousands of growers. Sonoma Cannabis Company, which has a farm in the Valley of the Moon, in the path of the Nuns Fire, and which produces concentrated cannabis oils, posted the photo below and a plea to donate to a campaign for "one of our team members [who] lost their home, their crop and everything in the fire."
As the New York Times reports, "Even the crops that were not in the direct line of fire could lose value or become unusable because of smoke damage, soot and ash."
Some of the crop that remains on the farm of SPARC in Glen Ellen, which was hard hit by the fire early Monday morning as we discussed yesterday, may still be usable in making cannabis oils, as Eater reports via founder Erich Pearson.
NBC Bay Area, which was preparing a piece last week on the harvest at SPARC's farm, which was ongoing but set to hit high gear this past Tuesday, returned to the farm Wednesday to show side-by-side video of what the farm looked like then versus now.
Pearson lost a barn that had been converted into worker housing, drying rooms, and storage, as well as live crops with a retail value in the millions. "Unless it’s metal, it’s not here,” Pearson tells NBC Bay Area. “It’s pretty devastating.”
Nonetheless, Pearson and lead grower Joey Erenata tell the station that their first concern is for their neighbors such as Bee-Well Farms, a vegetable farm which shared some of the property with SPARC, and who lost all their crops as well as their home in the Nuns Fire. And they also know that cannabis farmers with smaller operations, some of whom had just entered the business, had much more to lose. "I think there’s a lot of small farmers who’ve invested their life savings,” Pearson tells NBC Bay Area. “I think for a lot of them, it will be gone.”
Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, echoes that to the Chronicle, saying, "I had one conversation today where the family was in tears, saying, ‘We don’t know how we're going to make it to January, let alone next planting season.'"
Tawnie Logan, chair of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, tells the Chronicle that she knew of "a lot of people who have lost their farms in the last 36 hours, and their homes," and she noted one Santa Rosa greenhouse with a $2 million crop in it that was reduced to ash Sunday night.
The Chronicle's Green State blog noted a number of smaller growers who have posted the pictures of their devastated investments on social media in the last few days.
The Chronicle also notes that many farms were lost in the cannabis-rich Redwood Valley in Mendocino County, where the Redwood Complex Fire continues burning and is just 10% contained. Nikki Lastreto, secretary of the Mendocino Cannabis Industry Association, told local station WTVR on Thursday, "In southern Mendocino County, there are farms burning right now."
There was one moment of levity in all these reports, as Erenata tells NBC Bay Area. One Glen Ellen neighbor who lost her house said that as she was evacuating early Monday morning, near SPARC farm, "She said she could smell a really good scent traveling her way."