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Annual Northern California cannabis harvest underway as pot economy transitions

Acres licensed for cannabis cultivation by the state

Humboldt County = 155 acres

Mendocino County = 62 acres

Trinity County = 24 acres

Sonoma County = 20 acres

Lake County = 18 acres

Source: California Department of Food and Agriculture and Sonoma County data

Read more about cannabis commerce in the North Coast: nbbj.news/cannabis

This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com.

The pungent smell of cannabis planted on this west-facing hillside in the Sonoma Valley mixed with the odors of damp volcanic soil, aromatic pine and cattle musk from a herd watching over a calf crying for its mother.

A five-person farm crew cut down the plastic trellis holding up marijuana stalks laden with dense colas of Purple Punch, among the earliest flowers to ripen at this nearly 700-plant, one-acre biodynamic cannabis plot run by Terra Luna Farms in Glen Ellen.

They cut down the stalks, piled them onto carts and wheeled them to a small truck parked at the end of the row - a haul that will ultimately end up on the shelves as flowers or infused products at SPARC’s four dispensaries in Sonoma and San Francisco counties.

Growing cannabis lawfully under the sun on the North Coast is a risky gambit for farmers, who must bear the high costs of new regulations, compete with companies growing pot in urban warehouses or larger greenhouse farms in central and southern California and confront whatever Mother Nature brings. The nearly 60,000-acre Nuns fire destroyed most of SPARC’s harvest last year, forcing the company to fill its shelves with cannabis grown elsewhere.

“Harvest last year was disrupted by the catastrophic fires,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, an organic farmer who sits on an ad hoc committee helping to shape the county’s cannabis policies. “Going forward, the harvest feels disrupted by regulatory uncertainty.”

Northern California’s world-renowned outdoor cannabis harvest has for generations run parallel to the wine grape harvest, drawing itinerant workers to the region and fueling a cash-based economy that has kept small towns and garden supply stores afloat.

Roughly 279 acres are licensed for outdoor cannabis cultivation across a five-county Northern California marijuana growing region - the Emerald Triangle counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity and lesser-known cannabis country in Sonoma and Lake counties, according to a Press Democrat analysis of state licensing and Sonoma County permitting data.

That translates to a legal outdoor harvest worth about $474 million a year, barring catastrophic crop loss and based on industry standards for yield and the current wholesale value of marijuana, about $500 a pound.

Still-ripening marijuana buds are secreting their most pungent essential oils of the season - odors noxious to some, appealing to others and a sign of harvest time. The earliest flowers were cut down in September and the slower-?to-ripen varietals will head to the drying sheds in early November.

A fraction of the region’s cannabis growers, estimated in the tens of thousands, are making a run at growing cannabis openly and lawfully.

Erich Pearson, SPARC’s founder and executive director, said he could find a more affordable place to grow cannabis than this bucolic valley surrounded by regenerating forests and parcel after parcel of vineyards. Instead, he’s attempting to create a taste for high-end, biodynamic cannabis infused with the unique terroir of this Glen Ellen area hillside.

In Sonoma County, just under 20 acres of cannabis worth about $34 million is being harvested lawfully through the agricultural department or with temporary county authorization for certain operators. In contrast, the 2017 wine grape harvest was worth $580 million across nearly 60,000 acres.

These acreages for cannabis don’t include cannabis being grown in warehouses or other indoor facilities.

. But for legal operators, it is far more affordable - and environmentally sustainable - to grow outside rather than secure the real estate and infrastructure needed to cultivate indoors on top of the expensive fees required by counties like Sonoma, said Tawnie Logan, a Sonoma County industry consultant. Logan described this year’s harvest as “bare bones” with so few longtime cultivators allowed to grow.

Last year, a combination of major wildfires and the high costs of compliance disrupted what might have been an indicative year for the region’s sun-grown cannabis haul.

It was the first year when marijuana cultivators were required to follow new local regulations developed in advance of the state’s 2018 rollout of its rules.

Sonoma and Mendocino counties each fell short in cannabis tax revenues by about $500,000 for the 2017-18 tax year. Sonoma collected $3.4 million, while Mendocino brought in $1.3 million.

The new rules are changing the landscape of cannabis cultivation in Mendocino County, where officials have estimated at least 10,000 of the county’s 87,000 residents grew marijuana - a figure some local industry leaders think is an underestimate.

Its farmers created the well-known Emerald Cup has grown into the country’s only cannabis contest celebrating pot grown outside, one that draws more visitors to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Many people who supplemented their income by growing a little pot are looking for other ways to make ends meet while others are shutting down their gardens and joining the cannabis labor workforce, said Genine Coleman, executive director of the Mendocino Appellations Project.

An unknown number of growers are “hunkering down” and sticking with the black market, she said.

It’s unclear how rural counties like Mendocino where residents have long depended on the medical marijuana and illicit markets will weather the transition from an underground industry to a corporatized and commercialized one.

“We’re in a hard place because we have been a very robust cultivation region that has been - confidentially and without any statistics - underwriting the entire county’s economy,” Coleman said. “Because of the scale of what’s going on in California, we’re not on great footing.”

Hezekiah Allen, who founded the California Growers Association, said the 2018 harvest “is one for the record books” for people who managed to acquire local permits and state licenses to grow. He added farmers from all over the region are sending him photographs showing towering plants benefiting from a good weather year.

“I’m seeing big, colorful beautiful flowers with all the colors of fall and they’re sparkling and glistening with these magical cannabinoid flowers that will bring so much goodness,” Allen said. “It’s a magical time.”

Acres licensed for cannabis cultivation by the state

Humboldt County = 155 acres

Mendocino County = 62 acres

Trinity County = 24 acres

Sonoma County = 20 acres

Lake County = 18 acres

Source: California Department of Food and Agriculture and Sonoma County data

Read more about cannabis commerce in the North Coast: nbbj.news/cannabis

This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com.

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